Writing in the Sciences Online Class

Posted November 17, 2015 by Anya Vostinar in Information / 0 Comments

I recently finished taking an online course through Stanford’s Lagunita online learning site. The course was “Medicine: SciWrite Writing in the Sciences” and was an online version of a class that is offered in person at Stanford from what I can tell. This was the first online class I had ever taken and I decided to try it originally because I’m done with taking classes for my PhD and honestly craved a bit of structure as I started my first semester of pure research. I also hear on a regular basis how important strong writing skills are to scientists no matter where you end up, so this class seemed a good thing to try. While the class is apparently through the medical school and the examples made that clear, I found that the information pertained to all scientific writing.

I have to say that I’m quite impressed with how the class was run and how technology was used to give every student formative feedback throughout without making the instructors grade thousands of essays. I didn’t look at the syllabus before jumping in, so some of the topics weren’t quite what I was hoping for, but overall I think I learned a few things and had a chance to practice my writing skills. I definitely recommend you keep an eye out for when they offer it again (I found it through Coursera and there isn’t a future session listed yet: https://www.coursera.org/course/sciwrite). To give you a better idea of what to expect than I had, I’m going to go over what was taught in each section and how valuable I found various sections.

Sentence-level improvements

The first few weeks of the course are dedicated to improving your writing at the sentence level by cutting clutter, using the active voice, using parallel structure, and making sure you have interesting verbs instead of turning those verbs into nouns. I liked the emphasis on scientific writing still being interesting to read. I feel like when we are in high school and learning to write academically, we are led to believe our writing needs to be boring in order to be serious. Then we spend years unlearning that lesson (if we ever do) to write in a compelling way. This was the section of the course that I found most helpful, since I’ve generally learned all the grammar rules that I can fit in my brain, but not the next level of making my writing not only grammatically correct, but interesting as well.

Manuscript writing

The course then goes to a higher level and looks at how to write a scientific manuscript and go through the process of getting it published. I found these weeks less helpful since I had the privilege of being taught how to write a manuscript from a skilled post-doc, so I’m already pretty comfortable with my writing process and how I write each section. It was a good reminder, but a lot of this information can be found on the web. A good resource that I saved though is the Clinical Chemistry Guide to Scientific Writing, which has a section on what each part of your paper should contain.

This section of the course also goes into other issues surrounding scientific publication including how to review papers, how to deal with reviews of your paper, ethical issues (authorship, plagiarism, etc), and how to deal with the press if you are lucky and your paper gets picked up by popular media. I’ve already heard a lot about how to determine authorship and what constitutes plagiarism, so I didn’t find this section particularly enlightening, but it’s good to hammer that home I guess.

Lagunita technology for homework

As I said previously, this class used the Lagunita software for the online version of the class. This consisted of video lectures (with optional speed-up, transcripts and closed-captions) and two different kinds of homework.

The homework consisted of multiple choice questions that you could try twice on and then sentences that you had to improve and then self-grade. Of course, this can’t be a summative assessment of skill because the student has to determine if they improved the sentence themselves, but it is a good formative assessment to get an idea of how to edit. Once you put in your hopefully improved sentence, you’d be given an instructor-written improvement that you could compare to. These questions were only worth one point each, so they really were just to practice and you could give yourself credit for trying.

The final exam was given as multiple choice and I found it quite easy, as you would kind of expect from this course. However, I did have to apply a few of the things I learned from the video lectures.

The technology was pretty cool to interact with and I’m excited about how far things have come for online education. The main complaint I have is that the site is really, painfully slow to load each homework question.

Peer review of homework assignments

In an attempt to get some human feedback into the mix, there were three peer review assignments with the lowest being dropped. The prompts were fairly flexible and pertained to what we had been working on in the class (summary of a paper, introduction to an in-progress manuscript, etc.) and only 300-500 words. What was interesting was the peer review process, since it was aided quite a bit by technology and I could see in-person classes using this software to great benefit.

First you had to submit your essay of course. But in order for your essay to be graded by peer review, you had to give four of your peers feedback. Before you jumped into that, however, you had to grade example essays and keep trying until you matched the instructors’ grading for those examples. This way we could calibrate how the instructors wanted us to grade each other’s essays. I didn’t find it too difficult to match the instructors’ grading, but it was useful to get an idea of what they expected for each of the grading categories.

When I started grading my peers’ essays, there was a simple version of track changes implemented in the website, so that I could make direct edits where appropriate as well as give an overall grade for clarity, concision, style, organization, and focus. I found it rather fun to grade my peers’ work, though it did demonstrate to me that there was a wide range of grammatical skill levels in this class. I did not, however, find my peers’ feedback all that helpful given that some of their edits were actually just grammatically incorrect and a lot of people just didn’t give specific feedback. It perhaps would help if the track changes software allowed for comments to be inserted in addition to changes to the text to make it easier to give specific feedback.

Overall, the course was useful for the amount of time required and not particularly difficult to complete. It doesn’t teach grammar, so it is a good course to take when you’ve already learned the basics, but want to improve the punch of your writing.

Are there any online courses that you recommend?

Anya Vostinar

I’m a doctoral student in Computer Science and Engineering and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at Michigan State University. I am studying the evolution of various group dynamics such as altruism, cooperation, and mutualism using computational tools such as Avida and simulations. I love organizing outreach activities to bring local school children to BEACON as well as developing educational tools that take advantage of technology.

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