Communities

Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning

Michael O'Donnell

Laboratory experiences play a central role in science education. Calls for reform in science education have re-emphasized the very goals that we strive for when developing laboratory curricula: inquiry-based research experiences that develop students’ science process and communication skills.[1] Despite creating inquiry-based experiences for students in introductory biology laboratories, I was dissatisfied with student outcomes (i.e., lab reports) and their assessment. I was dismayed that some students leaned heavily on their more engaged lab partners during the design and execution of an experiment, used data others had worked hard to generate, and then wrote a decent lab report that nevertheless showed little scientific creativity. Conversely, students who may have fully engaged in the experiment had trouble writing a decent report.

Educators who utilize labs strive to create lab experiences that expose students to the process of science as realistically as possible. We embrace the pedagogy of collaborative learning and stress that science itself is a collaborative endeavor, but then what do we do? After having students design and carry out experiments in a group, and perhaps analyze results in a group, we make them go their separate ways to write a lab report. That’s not how science is done; it’s very hard to find primary articles in the research literature written by one author. We have students collaborate for part of the science process and then send them into solitary confinement to finish the process. They end up spending more time writing in isolation than they did collaborating on data collection. Perhaps this is one reason why students hate lab reports so much, as shown by the popular “I Hate Lab Reports” Facebook page.[2]

Collaborative Writing

Students often do not understand the purpose of the lab report; they see it as a summary of the experiment that reports the “right answer” for a grade. Instead, we need to emphasize science writing as an important part of the collaborative process of science and present lab reports as an authentic learning activity that allows for a deep engagement with the material. Collaborative writing provides opportunities for peer instruction that promote critical thinking, enhance decision-making skills, and deepened understanding of the scientific concepts being studied. However, when students have submitted group lab reports in the past, one person predictably ends up doing the bulk of the work. I could never determine who meaningfully contributed to the finished product. That was a major sticking point – how do I evaluate the contribution and participation of each group member?

This need to assess individual contributions moved me to examine online collaborative writing tools such as GoogleDocs and wikis that store every version of the document. Instructors can compare document versions (using the history log) and therefore identify, verify, and evaluate individual student contributions. Educators have recently started to use wikis to support collaborative learning.[3] Educational use of wikis in the sciences has been relatively rare, and usually involved with class notes, but Elliott and Fraiman report on chemistry classes using web-based collaborative lab reports. [4]

Since I rely heavily on our institutional learning management system (Moodle) in the laboratory course, I felt it would be better to use a tool within Moodle itself, so I had students in our second-semester introductory biology course use Moodle’s wiki module for collaborative writing of laboratory reports. This introductory class is a large-enrollment team-taught course for beginning science majors. Each semester of this course has 70-90 students, who enroll in one lecture section taught by two faculty, and also one of four laboratory sections (about 18-24 students each) taught by two other faculty.

The wiki platform allows all students in the group (and the instructor) to track every change made to the document, compare different versions side-by-side, and assess individual student contributions to the group report, as shown below.

The wiki platform allows students and the instructor to track individual contributions to a group report and compare different versions side-by-side.

The wiki platform allows students and the instructor to track individual contributions to a group report and compare different versions side-by-side.

The wiki platform allows students and the instructor to track individual contributions to a group report and compare different versions side-by-side.

The wiki platform allows students and the instructor to track individual contributions to a group report and compare different versions side-by-side.

Implementation

Wikis were set up so that each group sees and edits only their own lab report, following the typical structure and format, with clearly defined student roles. For each report, students wrote different sections (Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion are all separate wiki “pages”), and then all students contributed peer review comments on all sections. The original author of each section used those comments to write a final version. One student served as “Principal Investigator” (PI) to check style between sections and finalize the report. Roles were rotated for subsequent reports, so each student wrote every section and also served as a PI. See table below.

Students were told that both their writing and their reviews of other students’ writing would be assessed. This forces students to reflect upon the quality of their contribution as they review and comment on their peers’ writing.[5] I graded each section of the report (based upon a rubric shared with students) and evaluated contributions made by each student. Each contribution received a score of 0 (not useful), 1 (somewhat useful), or 2 (good, useful comment). Nancovska Serbec et al. note that the quality of contributions rather than the quantity is important in assessing student wiki work.[6] I had students submit a “Team Member Assessment” after every report so I had peer grades for each student. Students’ grades were determined by a combination of: (1) the grade on the section they wrote, (2) their “contribution factor,” which is their contribution score relative to the group’s average contribution score, (3) their peer review grades assigned by other group members, and (4) the grade on the completed full report.[7]

 

Wiki Section Draft Reviews Final Draft
Title Group effort Everyone Group effort
Abstract Group effort Everyone Group effort
Introduction Student A Everyone Student A
Methods Student B Everyone Student B
Results Student B Everyone Student B
Discussion Student C Everyone Student C
Literature Cited Group effort Everyone Group effort
Overall (PI) Student A

One of the typical benefits of collaborative work using wikis was the peer-to-peer learning in the comments.[8] More experienced and confident students would guide less experienced students in their writing and understanding of concepts, often pointing out requirements from the rubric or from the writing guidelines that were missed. In some cases, less experienced students would see the working habits and thought processes of the successful students resulting in a helpful lesson that lasted much longer than the writing assignment. Successful students benefited by practicing and teaching skills needed to critically evaluate writing.  Lundstrom and Baker report that peer reviewers receive a benefit towards their own writing by evaluating others’ writing at the level of content and organization.[9] This multi-level feedback was common, as reviewers helped with underlying science concepts and the organizational rules for scientific papers.

Assessment and Discussion

To assess the impact of collaborative writing with wikis, I compared the two years of the course with group wiki writing to the two years prior without group writing.  Though quality of lab reports (grade on completed reports) improved, student performance in lab (final lab grades) was not affected by collaborative writing with wikis.  Before using wikis, lab grades generally reflected grades on individual reports.  With collaborative wiki reports, lab grades now reflected students’ writing plus their contributions to the group’s final product.

Student perceptions of the course and of their gains from wiki writing were affected. There was a shift toward a more positive perception (chi-square test for independence; all P<0.05). In this positive shift, more students agreed that (1) the amount of work during lab sessions was appropriate to the time available, (2) the total workload for lab was appropriate, (3) the lab handout readings were clear, and (4) students had opportunities for extra help. The first two perceptions are not surprising; with students writing only part of a report instead of a whole report, they should feel that the workload is lessened. I do not think students perceive the time spent commenting on the work of peers is as onerous as the time spent writing reports. The last two perceptions were unexpected (clear lab handouts and opportunities for extra help).  At first glance they don’t seem to be related to group writing. However, since peers were always on hand (via the web) to answer questions or make comments on each other’s work, students felt less abandoned during the learning process. No matter the reasons for this shift in perception, any such positive shift can increase student engagement.[10]

Students’ perceptions of group reports relative to individual reports were also positive. The majority (62-75%) of students reported that, compared to writing individual reports (as they did in the previous semester’s introductory course), writing group reports: (1) helped their understanding of the concepts presented, (2) helped improve their scientific writing, (3) helped them think about the strengths and weaknesses of their writing, and (4) helped increase confidence in their ability to write scientifically.

Student responses to open-ended questions were similarly positive. Typical responses expressed the beneficial aspects of peer learning and the less stressful workload:

“It made effective use of my time during the year. The lab reports offered a chance to more fully investigate the labs we conducted without the effort of writing a whole lab report. At the same time we were able to learn how to write better because of the feedback from our group and also by observing other’s work.”

“It helped foster a greater understanding of the course material. It was helpful to discuss topics in a group and listen to other peoples ideas.”

“I felt it was much more helpful to only have one section to focus on as opposed to an entire lab report. It took a lot of stress off.”

Typical negative responses were related to group members not doing their fair share within a reasonable time:

“Using the wiki was fine but I hated having group projects. I felt like my grade in this class suffered because of my group members and their inefficiency to get their work done.”

“Not all group members contributed equally or put in their best effort into the report so more work was left with some individuals.”

Conclusion

The teaching laboratory is a collaborative learning environment where students work together to design and implement experiments.  This collaborative environment usually ends when the laboratory session ends.  Collaborative lab reports allowed students to more closely mimic the process of science, and the wiki environment allowed student research teams to discuss and report on experimental findings outside of lab time.  This use of wikis allows for the reflection needed in constructivist learning, as students continue constructing their own knowledge through interactions with other students during report writing.  By using peer reviews and group discussion in the wikis, the focus is not only on the content of the finished lab report, but also on science writing as a creative and iterative process.

Students reported improved attitudes about learning science, and a decreased workload with collaborative wiki writing.  For the instructors involved, assessing individual contributions in addition to student writing was no more time consuming than grading four times as many individual reports, and it was more enjoyable reading one-quarter as many higher-quality reports.  Even though student grades in lab were not improved by group wiki writing, the beneficial effects of positive student perception toward such a large introductory science course should not be ignored.  It would be interesting to look at whether collaborative writing influences retention in the sciences, as experiences in introductory science courses are important in determining whether students continue in science, and how they view science and its connection to their everyday lives. [11]

About the author: Michael O’Donnell is a Principal Lecturer and Laboratory Coordinator in the Department of Biology at Trinity College, Connecticut. His teaching philosophy is to get students to be active participants in the creative process of science.

How to cite this chapter:

Michael O’Donnell, “Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/odonnell.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[12]


  1. National Research Council, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning (The National Academies Press, 2000), http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9596.
  2. "I Hate Lab Reports" Facebook page screenshot, circa 2011, uploaded by author to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2014/03/ODonnell-M-Facebook-IHateLabReports.png.
  3. Kevin Parker and Joseph Chao, “Wiki as a Teaching Tool,” Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects 3, no. 1 (2007): 57–72, http://editlib.org/p/44798.
  4. Edward W. Elliott and Ana Fraiman, “Using Chem-Wiki To Increase Student Collaboration through Online Lab Reporting,” Journal of Chemical Education 87, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 54–56, http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ed800022b.
  5. Xavier de Pedro Puente, “New Method Using Wikis and Forums to Evaluate Individual Contributions in Cooperative Work While Promoting Experiential Learning:: Results from Preliminary Experience,” in Proceedings of the 2007 International Symposium on Wikis, WikiSym ’07 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2007), 87–92, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1296951.1296961.
  6. I.N. Šerbec, M. Strnad, and J. Rugelj, “Assessment of Wiki-supported Collaborative Learning in Higher Education,” in 2010 9th International Conference on Information Technology Based Higher Education and Training (ITHET), 2010, 79–85, http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/ITHET.2010.5480060.
  7. See author's supplementary teaching materials: the "General Rubric for Reports" is included in students' lab manuals and used for all writing assignments, http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=829; the "Team Member Assessment" was posted to Moodle as an online assignment, http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=830; the "Plant Hormone Grade Sheet" is specifically used to grade that lab's writing assignment, http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=828, and is patterned on LabWrite's Excel rubrics, available from http://www.ncsu.edu/labwrite/.
  8. Screenshot of peer-to-peer learning in wiki comments, uploaded by author to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=76.
  9. Kristi Lundstrom and Wendy Baker, "To Give is Better Than to Receive: The Benefits of Peer Review to the Reviewer’s Own Writing," Journal of Second Language Writing 18 (2009):30-43.
  10. David L. Neumann and Michelle Hood, “The Effects of Using a Wiki on Student Engagement and Learning of Report Writing Skills in a University Statistics Course,” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 25, no. 3 (2009): 382–398, http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet25/neumann.html.
  11. This essay was originally delivered at a conference presentation, and the slides are available at Michael O’Donnell, “Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning” (presented at the Teaching Millenials in the New Millennium, Center for Teaching and Learning conference, Trinity College, Hartford CT, April 2011), http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/millennials/5.
  12. Michael O'Donnell, "Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/communities/modonnell-2013/.

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