Building Critical Thinking through Technical Writing: Are We Taking the Right Approach?

thinking croppedI religiously read (ahem…meaning I quickly skim the RSS feeds) Faculty Focus for tips, tricks, latest educational research trends and general teaching strategies to help me overcome my classroom anxieties. Over the last year or so these blogs and articles have helped me with many ideas and issues with the courses that I teach. Recently, one particular blog resonated with me “How Assignment Design Shapes Student Learning” (Weimer, 2015). This blog spoke about how specific assignments guide students to think and perform in specific ways and how that influences their overall learning. You may be thinking; well of course. But my current overall educational research is: “How do writing lab reports contribute to a student’s understanding of the scientific method?”.  This makes me wonder if when we are working on helping students build critical thinking skills while using the premise of the scientific method, we may be going about lab report writing assignments in the wrong way.

When I first started teaching undergraduate General Biology and Anatomy and Physiology courses three years ago I was dismayed at what was the normal for student writing of lab reports. The first thing that I asked myself was “Was my science writing that bad when I was an undergrad?” My answer: a resounding Yes!

In Spring 2013, I set out to develop a series of assessments that helped students practice technical writing skills and create clear rubrics to help them develop this skill. I have collected data on student’s technical writing skills with the goal of correlating these new skills with student understanding and use of the scientific method.

The science technical writing assignments that I build into my lab courses are to help students via low stakes practice to reflect on the labs performed and the implication(s) of the data obtained. I have specific “chunked” assignments where students write components of a lab report. For example, the first lab write-up may have students write their testable hypothesis and the methods used in the lab. For the second lab, students write their testable hypothesis and results. These types of assignments continue until the students have had a chance to practice all of the components of a lab report prior to writing a complete lab report. Our data show students who perform practice chunked assignments do significantly better on the final lab report assignment (Hannah & Lisi, 2015).

Now, let’s mentally jump back to the blog  “How Assignment Design Shapes Student Learning” and the corresponding article “Private Journals versus Public Blogs The Impact of Peer Readership on Low-stakes Reflective Writing” (Foster, 2015). The data from Foster’s research illustrates that students have inherently different styles of writing depending on the target audience. Specifically, students who have open writing assignments (blogging to their peers) where they have to respond to peers and defend their information are more mentally adventurous than when they write journal assignments for only the professor or teaching assistants to read.

My technical writing data suggests students’ science technical writing improves with practice and regular prompt feedback. But are they only practicing the “form” and the rules that I set up in the assignments, or are they truly working through the material and using the scientific method to develop their critical thinking skills? In the end I want to help people explore science so that they can apply and evaluate scientific information to determine its impact on their daily lives. How does the traditional lab report accurately reflect a student’s ability to work through data? I would love to have comments if you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding how I might investigate students critical thinking skills using the blog format when writing science lab reports.



Foster, D. (2015). Private Journals versus Public Blogs: The Impact of Peer Readership on Low-stakes Reflective Writing. Teaching Sociology, 43(2), 104–114.×14568204

Hannah,R., Lisi,M., (2015) Technical Writing for Introductory Science Courses – Proficiency Building for Majors and Non-majors, 2015 Experimental Biology Meeting Abstracts, Abstract #678.25; Accessed June, 10, 2015

Weimer, M. (2015). How Assignment Design Shapes Student Learning. (2015, August). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from


PECOP rachael hannah
Rachel Hannah is a new Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Alaska, Anchorage. Previously, she was an Assistant Professor in the Math and Sciences Department at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Helping people become scientifically literate citizens has become her major career focus as a science educator. As a classroom and outreach educator, Rachel works to help people explore science so they can apply and evaluate scientific information to determine its impact on one’s daily life. She is trained as a Neurophysiologist and her graduate degree is in Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Recently Rachel’s research interests have migrated to science education and how students build critical thinking skills.

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