2016 Individual Grant Winner

Ziying Jiang


Promoting Learning of Scientific Concepts through Writing:
Writing as a Learning Tool and an Assessment Tool in GEO 121


Writing is a primary way for scientists to communicate ideas and share research findings. Science education aims to help students achieve scientific literacy (National Research Council, 1996). However, in science classes, students do not have many opportunities to connect scientific concepts with every-day phenomena and they have difficulty in articulating their scientific knowledge. Previous research has manifested improvement in students’ understanding of scientific concepts through writing (Hand, 2007; Patterson, 2000; Rivard & Straw, 2000). However, little research has investigated the effective teaching methods to support students’ writing of scientific explanation and representation. Especially in the case of ESL students, they need more scaffolding to make sense of the science concepts and guidance to present their understanding in writing. In fall 2016, Dr. Jiang will teach two sessions of Geo121, both of which will have over 50% ESL students. Due to the increasing number of ESL students enrolled in the introductory geography class, it is essential to explore effective teaching methods to engage students of different language proficiency levels. Considering the challenges faced by both the domestic and ESL students in understanding and explaining scientific concepts, this project seeks to examine the influence of writing on students’ learning of scientific knowledge. The rationale is that it is necessary to give students different platforms to reinforce and present their knowledge and also give instructors different channels to scaffold and assess students’ performance. In this sense, writing is both a learning tool and an assessment tool in this project. To accommodate the diverse needs of students, we will design different writing assignments, create a variety of scaffolding activities and develop resources on Canvas to support students in the writing process. This Howe Writing Center grant will assist us to update curriculum, compose course materials, organize poster presentations and present at conferences for research dissemination within the 2016-2017 academic year.

Benefits for the Students

The project will impact 40 undergraduates registered in two sessions of Geo 121 in fall 2016. Given that writing will be integrated into curriculum in the future semesters, the number of students benefiting from this project will continue to grow.

Incorporating writing in the introductory social science class will foster the students’ awareness that writing skills could be transferred from English classes (ENG108, ENG109 and ENG 111) to substantive content area classes and facilitate the process of internalization of writing skills. In this sense, this project will strengthen the connection between language classes and content area classes. It is of great significance for ESL learners who need to consistently reinforce their language skills to keep up with the course content. In addition, in the treatment group, we will design different writing assignments such as explanatory writing, multimedia blog and poster and develop scaffolding activities such as focused exercise, graphic organizer, concept map, checklist and team presentation. The writing activities will reinforce students’ comprehension of concepts, the analytical skills of interpreting real life phenomena with scientific knowledge, the research skills of searching and evaluating sources, the synthesis skills of making connections between evidence to back up a claim, and the writing skills of demonstrating their knowledge in a structured way. Students go beyond merely summarizing and memorizing definitions to making a claim, analyzing and expanding the meaning and connecting concepts. Meanwhile, by implementing the writing model of CEEC (Claim, Evidence, Explain and Conclude), students develop the mindset of constructing meaning by means of joining a scientific conversation and making connections between different perspectives. Furthermore, experimenting with poster presentation and multimedia blog, students hone their skills to articulate their understanding of scientific concepts through different media and raise their metacognitive awareness by reflecting on the different processes of making sense of scientific concepts. In sum, by integrating writing into curriculum, this project will promote students to exercise their thinking processes of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation in learning scientific knowledge, which correspond to Bloom’s (1956) hierarchy of thinking skills.

Potential Impact

This project employs a quasi-experimental research design with one session as the treatment group and another as the control group. In the treatment group, writing will be incorporated into the curriculum while in the control group, class will be taught in the traditional manner. The data will provide empirical evidence that writing to communicate, clarify and reflect on one’s conception is a learning tool in the knowledge building process. Moreover, the data will shed lights into designing writing assignments, developing effective scaffolding activities, and assessing students’ performance. Furthermore, the data will provide insights into students’ perception of the project aim of writing as a learning tool and an assessment tool. The dissemination of the research results through conference presentation and journal publications will contribute to the scholarship of college writing and science education.

Program Objectives

This project aims to explore writing as effective learning and assessment tools for the introductory geography class Geo121. We will work closely with Howe writing center staff on the following objectives.

  1. Design prompts and guidelines for the writing assignments that align with the course description and students learning outcomes. In this project, students will do research and complete three writing assignments: explanatory writing, multimedia blog and poster at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the semester respectively. The assignments focus on students’ ability to explain scientific concepts through real-life examples and students’ thinking skills in the writing process.
  2. Develop scaffolding activities in the classroom that accompany each writing assignment such as focused exercise, graphic organizer, concept map, checklist and team presentation.
  3. Incorporate a library session to raise students’ awareness of using outside sources to back up claims as well as develop their skills in searching for and evaluating online resources.
  4. Develop resources on Canvas that support students outside the classroom such as a list of webpage links and handouts that illustrate how to use library database, APA formatting, how to avoid plagiarism and writing samples.
  5. Record four modules based on students’ needs: 1) search and evaluate sources, 2) citation and documentation, 3) CEEC writing model of Claim, Evidence, Explain and Conclude, and 4) how to create multimedia blog and poster.
  6. Design clear guidelines for creating a multimedia blog which embeds pictures, images, tables, graphs, charts, infographics, and videos. It aims to engage students in cooperative learning and hone students’ skills in reinforcing and expressing their scientific knowledge through a variety of medium.
  7. Draft guidelines for poster presentation which aims to enhance students’ confidence in communicating ideas to a general public in both oral and written output.
  8. Guide students to analyze the strength and weakness of different media in explaining scientific concepts (essay, poster and multimedia blog), which aims to foster students’ metacognitive awareness of reflecting on their writing process.
  9. Create rubrics for each writing assignment to assess students’ comprehension of scientific concepts and their ability to demonstrate their knowledge in diverse ways.
  10. Compare the pre-test and post-test results between the treatment group and the control group as well as within groups. Examine the correlation between writing performance and post-test scores.
  11. Conduct surveys and interviews at the end of the semester. Identify students’ feelings and perception of the influence of writing on concept learning.
  12. Share the research results with other faculty members on campus and get feedback to improve the project in the following semesters.

Project Plan

The specific tasks of this project will follow the steps:

  1. Design multiple-choice questions in the pre-test and post-test exams.
  2. Consult and collaborate with Howe writing center staff concerning the clarity of the assignment requirements, the scaffolding activities, the module content, the resources on Canvas and the rubrics for writing assignments.
  3. Compose clear writing prompts and guidelines for each writing assignment.
  4. Develop rubrics to assess the writing assignments.
  5. Demonstrate the writing model of Claim, Evidence, Explain and Conclude through writing samples.
  6. Develop classroom activities that scaffold the writing assignments.
  7. Incorporate a library session to inform students of effective and reliable ways to search for sources and evaluate online sources.
  8. Create resources on Canvas that provide extra support outside classroom such as the list of website links, handouts etc.
  9. Record four writing modules.
  10. Demonstrate in class how to create a multimedia blog embedding pictures, images, tables, charts, graphs, infographics and videos.
  11. Compose detailed guidelines for poster presentation.
  12. Draft survey and interview questions that will be conducted at the end of the semester.
  13. Organize poster presentation at the end of the semester for students to communicate the scientific concepts to the university community.

Assessment Strategy

Both quantitative data and qualitative data are triangulated to assess the effectiveness of the project.

  1. The explanatory essay assesses students’ ability to explain everyday phenomena with scientific concepts. The multimedia blog and the poster presentation will further assess their ability to articulate their understandings through different media to a general public. The writing assignments will be grades based on the rubrics developed with the help of Howe writing center staff.
  2. The pre-test and post-test exams throughout the semester will assess students’ improvement of concepts comprehension after the writing assignments.
  3. SPSS will analyze the statistical significance of the differences in pre-test scores and post-test scores between the treatment group and the control group (independent sample t-test) and within groups (dependent sample t-test).
  4. Regression analysis will measure the direction and magnitude of the correlation between writing assignments and post-test scores in the treatment group.
  5. The four-point Likert scale survey at the end of the semester will examine students’ perception of the influence of writing on understanding scientific concepts in the treatment group. SPSS will be used for data screening and descriptive statistics (e.g. mean, standard deviation, and percentage).
  6. The semi-conducted interviews at the end of the semester will probe students’ reflection on using writing to enhance comprehension in the treatment group. The qualitative data will be analyzed through Nvivo to identify the key patterns and themes recurring in students’ feedback.

Team Members

  • Dr. Lin Guo (English language learning specialist)
  • Dr. Ziying Jiang (Assistant professor of geography)
  • Howe Writing Center staff


(originally presented in table; reformatted for web)

  • Fall 2016
    • Develop guidelines for writing assignments, scaffolding activities and rubrics with Howe Writing Center Staff
    • Create and administer the pre-test and post-test exams
    • Schedule a library session of searching and evaluating sources
    • Record writing modules and compose writing resources on Canvas including website links and handouts with Howe Writing Center Staff
    • Demonstrate the creation of a multimedia blog
    • Draft guidelines for poster presentation
    • Conduct survey and interviews at the end of the semester
  • Spring 2017
    • Analyze quantitative data through SPSS and qualitative data through Nvivo
    • Draft research proposals for conferences (Lilly, AAAL, CCCC)
    • Write research results and discussion sections
  • Summer 2017
    • Complete introduction, literature review and methodology sections
    • Prepare paper for submission to journals
  • Fall 2017
    • Present research findings to the university


(originally presented in table; reformatted for web)

Rationale Cost

  • Lunch meetings ($250)
    • Lunch provided for up to 5 faculty/staff members for the project discussions during fall 2016 and spring 2017 $250
  • Compensation for time ($160)
    • Approximately 20 hours for a graduate assistant in helping to grade the writing assignments and input data into SPSS and Nvivo. 
  • Poster presentation ($200)
    • Cost will cover printing the posters and light refreshment during the poster presentation on campus
  • Conference attendance ($3200)
    • Cost will cover the expenses of two faculty/staff attending Lilly, CCCC, and AAAL conferences
  • Total $3810


Hand, B. (2007). Cognitive, constructivist mechanisms for learning science through writing. In C. S. Wallace, B. Hand, & V. Prain (Eds.), Writing and learning in the science classroom (pp. 21-31). Netherlands: Springer.

National Research Council (NRC). (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Patterson, E. W. (2000). Structuring the composition process in scientific writing. International Journal of Science Education, 23, 1-16.

Rivard, L. P., & Straw, S. B. (2000). The effect of talk and writing on learning science: an exploratory study. Science Education, 84, 566-593.