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Teaching Literacy in College Physics

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When my son was in kindergarten and first grade, I was annoyed at how much of the day they would spend on literacy, including reading, writing, spelling, etc. I was annoyed because (from my perspective) this was being done at the expense of more interesting subjects like science or social studies. It’s not that I don’t think literacy is important, but, as I would insist to anyone who would listen, why couldn’t they teach literacy in the context of science?! It is shocking to me how much of K-12 education is spent on literacy (particularly in the early grades), and yet when our students get to college we complain that they can’t write. They don’t know how to read. They don’t know how to find out things they don’t know. I kid you not, I have gotten emails asking me “what is the value of eo?” or “what is the power output of a dryer?” Don’t they know about Google and Wikipedia? Aren’t they supposed to be the tech-savvy generation?

The problem is that our science students are not taught how to be literate in science. By that I mean how to use literacy skills in the context of science (not science literacy in the sense that they know something about science). Reading and writing are skills that are discipline-dependent. Writing a lab report in a physics class is very different from writing a philosophy paper or an essay on British literature in the 17th century. There are some commonalities, for sure, but the specifics of writing can vary greatly from discipline to discipline. Students, in general, are taught to read and write in their English classes. Personally, in high school I hated writing, and I thought I was terrible at it. Then in college I took an upper level research methods course that required us to write several papers throughout the semester. I realized that I was actually good at writing about physics, and that I enjoyed it. What I was not so great at was writing about literature and philosophy. The content matters.

For too long, we science faculty have said, either explicitly or by our actions, that it is not our job to teach the students to write. It’s not our job to teach them to read textbooks. We have too much content to cover. We can’t sacrifice time to teach them these “soft skills.” Then we assign lab reports and whine about how bad they are at writing. And then we assign readings, and complain that they don’t complete the reading, or they didn’t get anything out of it.

But it is exactly these skills that will set them apart when they apply for jobs. Can they write a coherent cover letter? Can they read a journal article and speak about it intelligently when they visit grad schools or attend professional conferences? These are the things that make an impression on employers and grad school admissions committees. And for good reason, scientists who can communicate have a leg up in the “real world.” The dirty secret is that most scientists are terrible communicators. Think, just for a minute, and I’m sure you can point to at least 37 bad colloquium talks or conference presentations that you have attended. (Check out graphs of the intelligibility of seminar talks here.) Think for another minute and try to think of the last journal article you read that was completely intelligible. The dirty secret is that scientists are bad at communicating, not just with the public, but also with other scientists.

I’ve heard real scientists say that you need to make your research sound complicated and use jargon so that people will think you are smart. What’s that about? Are we so insecure in our positions that we have to make ourselves feel smart by being intentionally unintelligible? On the contrary, I had a professor in grad school say that no paper was ever rejected for being too readable. I think that’s a much more productive attitude. We need to start training students (and scientists) to communicate scientific ideas in a way that is accessible to the general public. This is particularly important considering fake news is an emerging plague on the internet.

So what do we do about it? We need to start teaching literacy skills in our science classes. Into all of our science classes, the intro classes, the advanced classes, the classes for non-majors.

We need to teach them ALL to communicate professionally (to other scientists) and to communicate in informal contexts (such as facebook posts). We need to teach them to write with accuracy and to explain complex concepts in simple terms. We need to teach them to read critically and how to critique arguments. I don’t think that this will be easy, and I don’t have the answers about how to do it. But I think, as science teachers, we need to accept that it is our responsibility to help build a more literate society.

I’ve been systematically trying to integrate more writing into my physics classes for the past few years, and even made one of my upper level classes into a writing intensive course. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of time to give comments on rough drafts, and to grade rewrites, and to facilitate peer reviews. But it is totally worth it in the end. They only way they will learn to write is to write, and rewrite, and write some more. And each iteration gets a little bit better, and a little easier to read. The progress you can make over a semester (or two or three) is astounding. The students, particularly the majors, have expressed great appreciation that writing is included as part of the course requirements. They express frustration that no one has taught them how to write about their content area before. Many have the same experience that I had an undergrad – they find their voice and talents they didn’t know they had.

Here’s the bonus – writing about science helps students to process science concepts in a different way from solving problems. Qualitative researchers talk about how writing is part of the research process because it forces us to articulate our thoughts, which helps to new ideas to crystallize. The same is true when students write a lab report, for example, they see new connections between the theory, the methods, and the data, and in the process of building an argument for their conclusions, they see the physics concepts in a new light. In the forward to Composing Science, Tom Fox writes that the book is mostly about students “writing about uncertainty,” and “what emerges from uncertainty is curiousity – an engaged sense of inquiry that motivates innovation and discovery.”

Further Reading

Here are some books I’ve read on the subject of writing and communicating in science that I’ve found helpful.

  1. Composing Science by Elliot, Jaxon, & Salter

  2. Engaging Ideas by John Bean

  3. Am I making myself clear? By Cornelia Dean

  4. Don’t be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson

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