Much evidence supports the role of writing-to-learn (WTL) assignments in improving student learning and argumentation skills. However, designing effective assignments can be challenging for instructors. We describe a process for modifying WTL assignments that were originally developed for small undergraduate biology classes (24 students) for use in large introductory cell biology courses (>80 students). Students explore a socioscientific issue (cancer treatment) intended to engage them. Students learn content through reading journal articles and textbook chapters, attending class, and participating in discussions. All along, students participate in iterative writing assignments and engage in peer evaluation and self-evaluation. Finally, students write persuasive arguments about how best to treat cancer. We describe how instructors can develop their own WTL assignments in their large biology courses.

Introduction

For the past decade, the AAAS and the National Science Foundation have encouraged biology instructors to teach with the goal of increasing scientific literacy (AAAS, 2011). They define scientific literacy as having the skills and knowledge required to successfully make and support evidence-based arguments. Writing allows students to construct and evaluate arguments (Myers, 1990; Bazerman, 2009; Bean, 2011). Furthermore, writing can be an effective strategy to increase scientific literacy (Balgopal et al., 2018). Several universities encourage Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing In the Disciplines (WAC/WID) in STEM courses (Townsend, 2001; Anderson et al., 2015). Because writing is central to the work of biologists, it behooves instructors to integrate it into courses (Myers, 1990; Coil et al., 2010; Brownell et al., 2013).

People organize and reflect on information and conceptions of reality through models and writing in a process called writing-to-learn (WTL; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). WTL differs from writing-to-communicate (WTC), which centers on creating written products for others (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013). Through WTL, students reflect on the meaning of scientific knowledge, as well as process and organize concepts and knowledge in preparation for WTC (Bean, 2011). Students use WTL when taking notes, preparing for homework, studying for exams, drawing/diagramming, and engaging in self-evaluation. Although peer evaluation is intended for an audience (the peer), it may be considered a type of WTL because often one goal of this process is for students to be reflective about their own writing (Mynlieff et al., 2014). WTL also includes the task of writing exam corrections, which has been found to increase student performance in large undergraduate biology courses (Mynlieff et al., 2014). WTL tasks help students make their thinking visible, but some students need guidance on how to practice WTL while studying. Both WTL and WTC tasks are part of the WAC/WID efforts, and experts in such curricular initiatives suggest that there is much room for improvement in helping colleagues integrate effective writing activities into their undergraduate classes (Anderson et al., 2016). Anderson and colleagues (2016) studied survey data collected from >70,000 students across 80 institutions and identified three high-impact writing practices: interactive writing processes, opportunities for meaning making, and clear expectations from instructors.

Our team (biology educators at a large, research-intensive university and a smaller, teaching-focused university) collaborated to modify existing writing interventions designed for small laboratory and discussion sections for our large cell biology courses (80–150 students). Sometimes trying new instructional strategies seems feasible in smaller classes; and from our experiences leading faculty professional development workshops, we find that colleagues are hesitant to integrate writing in large classes because of fears of how to design assignments, how to evaluate student work, and the time taken away from direct instruction on content. We spent a few years modifying and testing WTL tools for large cell biology courses and found that students' performance increased (Balgopal et al., 2018). Hence, our team posits that the process we used to modify WTL assignments intended to increase student learning outcomes from a small class to a large class will be informative to other college instructors (Anderson et al., 2016).

The Cognitive-Affective-Behavior Writing-to-Learn Model

To engage students, content needs to be relevant to their lives (National Research Council, 2000; Feinstein et al., 2013). The cognitive-affective-behavior (CAB) WTL model requires students to write about a socioscientific issue (SSI) from different perspectives: what they know, how they feel about it, and what they might do to resolve the problem or resolve tensions between their academic and personal knowledge (Balgopal & Wallace, 2009). SSIs affect nearly everyone and have no clear right or wrong answers or solutions. They provide an opportunity for students to draw on multiple types of evidence (scientific, cultural, economic, social) and reasoning (e.g., moral, informal, quantitative) because people often draw on both socioeconomic and biophysical sources of evidence as they grapple with the issues (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013). Examples of SSIs include GMOs, climate change, and stem cells. These issues provide relevance to students learning the science content (Zeidler & Sadler, 2008; Balgopal et al., 2017). Rather than dismiss the fact that students bring their own knowledge and/or opinions to science classrooms, CAB-WTL gives students the space to acknowledge it. Through the WTL assignment, students develop a persuasive argument, defending their decision about the SSI. Hence, instructors challenge students to make an evidence-based decision after having had the opportunity to evaluate the merit of different types of evidence. Students then engage in peer evaluation processes and provide critical feedback on the strength of the argument based on what evidence was used to support any claims. Students bring diverse geographic, cultural, and social perspectives (Zeidler et al., 2013). This allows for rich exchanges among students.

Modifying WTL Assignments for Large Life Science Courses

We found the CAB WTL model to be successful (Balgopal & Wallace, 2009). However, we originally developed this model for small classes (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013). Here, we describe a three-step process to modify WTL assignments for a large class (>80 students) that we believe will be valuable for our colleagues.

Identifying a Relevant SSI

First, instructors should consider whether the WTL assignment will be implemented across the entire course or in just one unit. The quality, rather than quantity, of writing assignments is more important in improving learning and social development (Anderson et al., 2016). Then they should select an SSI that can be explored throughout the chosen WTL instructional period and that is relevant for the student population (Zeidler et al., 2013). For example, for our implementation in cell biology courses, we decided to integrate writing across the entire 15-week semester. We chose cancer treatment as a topic that is nationally relevant and appropriate to explore across all the units in the course and across two different institutions set in geographically different contexts. Cancer on its own is not an SSI; however, decisions about how to treat cancer can be considered an SSI. For example, some forms of treatment center on changing diet (e.g., Travis, 2000; Pollack, 2010), a nonmedical form of treatment. Other SSIs introduce moral reasoning regarding cancer treatment studies (Harmon, 2010). Hence, writing persuasive arguments about what cancer treatment to consider provides the opportunity for students to evaluate multiple sources of evidence and, potentially, multiple types of reasoning.

We chose three core topics for each prompt: anticancer drug development (intermolecular interactions), multi-drug resistance (transmembrane transport), and the Warburg effect (metabolism). These topics align with three key cell biology concepts and content areas – cell parts (macromolecules), cell processes (protein folding, transmembrane transport), and cell driving forces (chemistry, thermodynamics) – that are the big ideas addressed in the classes at both institutions. Research on common student misconceptions in cell biology informed the big ideas (Howitt et al., 2008; Klymkowsky & Garvin-Doxas, 2008). Although the textbook used at both institutions is not organized using these big ideas per se, we help students identify key concepts in Alberts et al. (2014) in sophomore-level courses and in the cell signaling chapter in Reece et al. (2013) in freshman-level courses. We provide the cell biology concepts and content through assigned textbook reading and articles, lectures, learning activities, and videos. Additional reading assignments introduce and provide background on the SSI. For us, the focus has been on introducing students to various types of scientific writing in different sources. When we first designed the WTL activities for large biology courses, we had to accommodate the needs of both freshman- and sophomore-level courses, so we chose primarily secondary scientific reports and articles. We encourage our colleagues to use this assignment to integrate whatever types of articles they feel are most appropriate for their students and the course objectives. Although instructors will find value in selecting their own reading material, we have provided some examples of primary and secondary articles that can be used for the writing prompts we present here (Table 1).

Table 1.
Suggested readings to accompany WTL assignments and essay prompt about making a decision about what cancer treatment to recommend to a friend or relative who is a cancer patient. These readings are more recent. Some are suitable for introductory courses (reviews and opinion articles) and some are appropriate for more advanced biology students (primary research articles).
TopicArticle CitationArticle Type
Anticancer drug development (intermolecular interactions) Altieri, D.C. (2008). Surviving, cancer networks and pathway-directed drug discovery. Nature Reviews Cancer, 8, 61. Review 
Johnston, P.A. & Grandis, J.R. (2011). STAT3 signaling: anticancer strategies and challenges. Molecular Interventions, 11, 18. Review 
Yap, T.A, Sandhu, S.K., Workman, P. & de Bono, J.S. (2010). Envisioning the future of early anticancer drug development. Nature Reviews Cancer, 10, 514–523. Review 
Nass, S.J., Rothenberg, M.L., Pentz, R., Hricak, H., Abernethy, A., Anderson, K., et al. (2018). Accelerating anticancer drug development – opportunities and trade-offs. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 1. Opinion 
Kolata, G. (2017). A cancer conundrum: too many drug trials, too few patients. New York Times, August 12. Opinion 
Grady, D. (2016). In cancer trials, minorities face extra hurdles. New York Times, December 23. Opinion 
Mole, B. (2015). Biology may provide just the right chemistry for new drugs. Science News, July 20. Opinion 
Liu, F., Li, W., Hua, S., Han, Y., Xu, Z., Wan, D., et al. (2018). Nigericin exerts anticancer effects on human colorectal cancer by inhibiting wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway. Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, 17, 952–965. Primary research 
Multi-drug resistance (transmembrane transport) Szakács, G., Paterson, J.K., Ludwig, J.A., Booth-Genthe, C. & Gottesman, M.M. (2006). Targeting multidrug resistance in cancer. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 5, 219. Review 
Blanco, E., Shen, H. & Ferrari, M. (2015). Principles of nanoparticle design for overcoming biological barriers to drug delivery. Nature Biotechnology, 33, 941. Review 
Johnson, T.M. (2016). Overcoming multidrug-resistant cancer with smart nanoparticles. NIH/BIB Science Highlights, August 23. Review 
Felix Spenkuch (2017). No to multi-drug-resistant cancer. Advanced Science News, February 22. Review 
Robey, R.W., Pluchio, K.M., Hall, M.D., Fojo, A.T., Bates, S.E. & Gottesman, M.M. (2018). Revisiting the role of ABC transporters in multidrug-resistant cancer. Nature Reviews Cancer, 18, 452–464. Review 
Lee, W.H., Loo, C.Y., Young, P.M., Traini, D., Mason, R.S. & Rohanizadeh, R. (2014). Recent advances in curcumin nanoformulation for cancer therapy. Expert Opinion on Drug Delivery, 11, 1183–1201. Opinion 
Esser, L., Zhou, F., Pluchino, K.M., Shiloach, J., Ma, J.,Tang, W.K., et al. (2017). Structures of the multidrug transporter P-glycoprotein reveal asymmetric ATP binding and the mechanism of polyspecificity. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 292, 446–461. Primary research 
Jeyaraj, M., Sathishkumar, G., Sivanandhan, G., MubarakAli, D., Rajesh, M., Arun, R., et al. (2013). Biogenic silver nanoparticles for cancer treatment: an experimental report. Colloids and Surfaces B, 106, 86–92. Primary research 
The Warburg effect (metabolism) Liberti, M.V. & Locasale, J.W. (2016). The Warburg effect: how does it benefit cancer cells? Trends in Biochemical Sciences, 41, 211–218. Review 
Zhao, Y., Butler, E.B. & Tan, M. (2013). Targeting cellular metabolism to improve cancer therapeutics. Cell Death & Disease, 4, e532. Review 
University of Texas at Austin (2018). Keeping cancer out of breath blocks drug resistance. ScienceDaily, August 23. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180823140952.htmOpinion 
Sharma, A., Lee, M.-G., Shi, H., Won, M., Arambula, J. F., Sessler, J. L., et al. (2018). Overcoming drug resistance by targeting cancer bioenergetics with an activatable prodrug. Chem, 10, 2370–2383. Primary research 
Faubert, B., Boily, G., Izreig, S., Griss, T., Samborska, B., Dong, Z., et al. (2013). AMPK is a negative regulator of the Warburg effect and suppresses tumor growth in vivo. Cell Metabolism, 17, 113–124. Primary research 
Schmidt, M., Pfetzer, N., Schwab, M., Strauss, I. & Kämmerer, U. (2011). Effects of a ketogenic diet on the quality of life in 16 patients with advanced cancer: a pilot trial. Nutrition & Metabolism, 8, 54. Primary research 
Lu, J., Chen, M., Tao, Z., Gao, S., Li, Y., Cao, Y., et al. (2017). Effects of targeting SLC1A5 on inhibiting gastric cancer growth and tumor development in vitro and in vivo. Oncotarget, 8, 76458–46467. Primary research 
TopicArticle CitationArticle Type
Anticancer drug development (intermolecular interactions) Altieri, D.C. (2008). Surviving, cancer networks and pathway-directed drug discovery. Nature Reviews Cancer, 8, 61. Review 
Johnston, P.A. & Grandis, J.R. (2011). STAT3 signaling: anticancer strategies and challenges. Molecular Interventions, 11, 18. Review 
Yap, T.A, Sandhu, S.K., Workman, P. & de Bono, J.S. (2010). Envisioning the future of early anticancer drug development. Nature Reviews Cancer, 10, 514–523. Review 
Nass, S.J., Rothenberg, M.L., Pentz, R., Hricak, H., Abernethy, A., Anderson, K., et al. (2018). Accelerating anticancer drug development – opportunities and trade-offs. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 1. Opinion 
Kolata, G. (2017). A cancer conundrum: too many drug trials, too few patients. New York Times, August 12. Opinion 
Grady, D. (2016). In cancer trials, minorities face extra hurdles. New York Times, December 23. Opinion 
Mole, B. (2015). Biology may provide just the right chemistry for new drugs. Science News, July 20. Opinion 
Liu, F., Li, W., Hua, S., Han, Y., Xu, Z., Wan, D., et al. (2018). Nigericin exerts anticancer effects on human colorectal cancer by inhibiting wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway. Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, 17, 952–965. Primary research 
Multi-drug resistance (transmembrane transport) Szakács, G., Paterson, J.K., Ludwig, J.A., Booth-Genthe, C. & Gottesman, M.M. (2006). Targeting multidrug resistance in cancer. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 5, 219. Review 
Blanco, E., Shen, H. & Ferrari, M. (2015). Principles of nanoparticle design for overcoming biological barriers to drug delivery. Nature Biotechnology, 33, 941. Review 
Johnson, T.M. (2016). Overcoming multidrug-resistant cancer with smart nanoparticles. NIH/BIB Science Highlights, August 23. Review 
Felix Spenkuch (2017). No to multi-drug-resistant cancer. Advanced Science News, February 22. Review 
Robey, R.W., Pluchio, K.M., Hall, M.D., Fojo, A.T., Bates, S.E. & Gottesman, M.M. (2018). Revisiting the role of ABC transporters in multidrug-resistant cancer. Nature Reviews Cancer, 18, 452–464. Review 
Lee, W.H., Loo, C.Y., Young, P.M., Traini, D., Mason, R.S. & Rohanizadeh, R. (2014). Recent advances in curcumin nanoformulation for cancer therapy. Expert Opinion on Drug Delivery, 11, 1183–1201. Opinion 
Esser, L., Zhou, F., Pluchino, K.M., Shiloach, J., Ma, J.,Tang, W.K., et al. (2017). Structures of the multidrug transporter P-glycoprotein reveal asymmetric ATP binding and the mechanism of polyspecificity. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 292, 446–461. Primary research 
Jeyaraj, M., Sathishkumar, G., Sivanandhan, G., MubarakAli, D., Rajesh, M., Arun, R., et al. (2013). Biogenic silver nanoparticles for cancer treatment: an experimental report. Colloids and Surfaces B, 106, 86–92. Primary research 
The Warburg effect (metabolism) Liberti, M.V. & Locasale, J.W. (2016). The Warburg effect: how does it benefit cancer cells? Trends in Biochemical Sciences, 41, 211–218. Review 
Zhao, Y., Butler, E.B. & Tan, M. (2013). Targeting cellular metabolism to improve cancer therapeutics. Cell Death & Disease, 4, e532. Review 
University of Texas at Austin (2018). Keeping cancer out of breath blocks drug resistance. ScienceDaily, August 23. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180823140952.htmOpinion 
Sharma, A., Lee, M.-G., Shi, H., Won, M., Arambula, J. F., Sessler, J. L., et al. (2018). Overcoming drug resistance by targeting cancer bioenergetics with an activatable prodrug. Chem, 10, 2370–2383. Primary research 
Faubert, B., Boily, G., Izreig, S., Griss, T., Samborska, B., Dong, Z., et al. (2013). AMPK is a negative regulator of the Warburg effect and suppresses tumor growth in vivo. Cell Metabolism, 17, 113–124. Primary research 
Schmidt, M., Pfetzer, N., Schwab, M., Strauss, I. & Kämmerer, U. (2011). Effects of a ketogenic diet on the quality of life in 16 patients with advanced cancer: a pilot trial. Nutrition & Metabolism, 8, 54. Primary research 
Lu, J., Chen, M., Tao, Z., Gao, S., Li, Y., Cao, Y., et al. (2017). Effects of targeting SLC1A5 on inhibiting gastric cancer growth and tumor development in vitro and in vivo. Oncotarget, 8, 76458–46467. Primary research 

We repeat the activities described below three times, once for each of the core topics. Class discussions and lectures highlight the three big ideas (cell parts, processes, and forces driving processes), although we do not explicitly frame the writing assignments using these constructs. We use enzyme proteins as targets for anticancer drugs for the cell parts and intermolecular interactions as a process. We focus on transmembrane transport in multi-drug resistance in cancer treatment as the process. We employ the role of thermodynamics in the Warburg effect in cancer cell metabolism as our example of driving forces. Our goal is to help students organize what they may feel is a copious amount of content, in ways that they can then recall later for tasks meant to help them make meaning (Anderson et al., 2016).

Designing Iterative Writing Tasks

Allowing students to explore their attitudes and values when learning science can engage them in learning complex science concepts and help them distinguish between attitudes and scientific evidence. We ask students to draw on their academic knowledge (learned in class) and personal knowledge and beliefs (brought to class) through three “collection of thoughts” prompts (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Assignment 1, for which students were asked to read secondary source articles and then respond each week to a WTL prompt using a graphic organizer of their choice, before participating in peer evaluation, persuasive essay writing, and self-evaluation.

Figure 1.

Assignment 1, for which students were asked to read secondary source articles and then respond each week to a WTL prompt using a graphic organizer of their choice, before participating in peer evaluation, persuasive essay writing, and self-evaluation.

First, we ask students to explain what they know about cancer and cancer treatment to a friend or relative based on information learned from assigned articles, textbook readings, recitation section, and lecture notes. Second, students consider their personal connections and reactions regarding cancer and cancer treatment. Third, they identify tensions or dilemmas and how they might resolve them. Importantly, rather than assigning full essays, we use graphic organizers (e.g., from the Microsoft Word SmartArt version 15.15 library; Figure 2). Students' comments indicate that they enjoy selecting and using these graphic tools.

Figure 2.

“Collection of Thoughts” using graphic organizers, free writes, and table/matrix.

Figure 2.

“Collection of Thoughts” using graphic organizers, free writes, and table/matrix.

Layered Evaluation

We integrate three types of evaluation into our WTL assignments: peer evaluation, self-evaluation, and instructor evaluation.

Peer evaluation

Peers review the evidence that students identify before they construct a persuasive WTC essay describing the cancer treatment that they would recommend their loved one consider. Students give feedback on two other students' submissions and receive feedback from another two students indicating strengths and suggestions for improvement in responding to the prompts. We stress that students should not provide mechanical or grammatical feedback and should instead provide substantive feedback to peers. We explain that substantive feedback includes suggestions or comments about how aligned their peers' writing was to the writing prompts. We also remind students to reference examples in the writing, if possible, to help the writer. We also remind students to be polite and professional in their comments. At both institutions, students have acted respectfully toward their peers.

At the smaller university, we generate peer evaluation groups during laboratory sections. Because students at the larger university are not all concurrently enrolled in a laboratory class, instead of using class time for this activity we use an online instructional platform (Writing Studio or Canvas) to randomly generate peer evaluation groups. Our graduate teaching assistant reminds some students to complete their peer evaluations in the online platform. The in-class, synchronous peer evaluation process does not present this issue. On the other hand, the comments students provide synchronously (in class) tend to be shorter and less detailed than the online peer evaluation comments.

Self-evaluation

In the fifth week, after receiving feedback from peer evaluation, students construct their persuasive essays (one to two pages) describing their decision about cancer treatment in the form of a letter to a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with cancer and is considering their treatment options. Students also indicate how they responded to peer feedback and engage in self-evaluation. We ask students to highlight the big ideas, bold their reactions, and underline dilemmas and tensions regarding what decisions they would make.

Instructor evaluation

The instructors and teaching assistants assess and score the students' submissions and peer reviews using defined rubrics (Figures 3 and 4). Rubrics greatly facilitate rapid scoring of assignments. We award students up to five points for their peer evaluations, up to 15 points total for the three WTL collections of thoughts, and a maximum of 15 points for their essay (35 possible points in total). Finally, the instructor, informed by the students' essays, leads in-class discussions and provides feedback to the students on their understanding, misconceptions, and connections with the core topic area. For this to occur, we recommend that the instructor read several (~20) randomly chosen essays and identify which concepts, reactions/connections, and dilemmas/decisions students most often describe (highlight, bold, and underline). This subsample review gives the instructor some idea of issues that he or she can present in class. In addition, if there are missing concepts that the essays do not reflect, the instructor can also share these.

Figure 3.

Rubric for evaluating peer evaluations.

Figure 3.

Rubric for evaluating peer evaluations.

Figure 4.

Rubric for WTL assignment evaluation.

Figure 4.

Rubric for WTL assignment evaluation.

Lessons Learned

During our first implementation of WTL in our cell biology courses, we required that each sub-assignment be submitted within a week, the collection of thoughts on what they know in the first week, their reactions the second week, what they would do (decision they would make) the third week, the peer reviews the fourth week, and the WTC essay the fifth week. In current implementations, we make the three collections of thoughts and the draft essay due at the end of the third week. To determine whether the WTL tasks have a positive effect on student learning outcomes, we implemented a simplified version of the writing assignments by asking students to read articles and respond to an essay prompt without participating in any WTL activities (Figure 5). While the learning outcomes were diminished, the WTC assignments (persuasive essays) did prove useful in improving performance outcomes (Balgopal et al., 2018).

Figure 5.

Writing to Communicate – assignment 1 only.

Figure 5.

Writing to Communicate – assignment 1 only.

We thank Jake Herman and Anne Marie A. Casper, who were graduate students at Colorado State University during the implementation of the CAB WTL model and helped with organizing, collating, and/or grading assignments. We thank Shireen Alemadi, Phillip King, and Molly Gareis at Minnesota State University Moorhead, who assisted in organizing and collating the assignments. All data were collected in compliance with Colorado State University IRB protocol no. 123675H. This study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE no. 1244889) awarded to Balgopal, Wallace, Brisch, and Laybourn.

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