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Research and Teaching

Use of a Linked-Course Model to Teach Scientific Writing to First-Year Undergraduates

Journal of College Science Teaching—March/April 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 4)

By Evan Lampert and J. Stephen Pearson

The ability to read and compose original scientific literature is critical to educating informed citizens, yet may be severely lacking in undergraduate curricula. We developed a linked course offering in fall 2017 consisting of a 16-student group taking an introductory biology course paired with a first-year composition course. The composition course focused specifically on scientific literature composed in the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (IMRaD) structure. In the composition course, instruction focused on helping students conceptualize and compose proposals, poster presentations, and manuscripts based on their lab activities. We surveyed for prior experience with scientific literature and self-reported reading and writing confidence. Participants in the linked courses showed an improvement in self-reported ability and confidence in writing compared to a control group that did not participate. We assembled a rubric assessing correct IMRaD structure and used it to assess composition before and after the linked courses. Adherence to IMRaD improved significantly for the Methods section. Our experiences indicate that learning communities can be useful pedagogies to provide students with confidence and learning gains that facilitate use of information and communication.


The lack of lower-level college instruction in scientific report writing is a problem across the United States. In spite of the many benefits of undergraduate scientific literacy (Gormally et al., 2012; Impey, 2013), scientific learning is falling behind at many traditional institutions (Momsen et al., 2010; Speth et al., 2010; Bradforth et al., 2015; Herrera, 2018), and students may not acquire scientific literacy (Moskovitz & Kellogg, 2011). Writing is an important tool for learning science (Wallace et al., 2004; MacKenzie & Gardner; 2006; Reynolds et al., 2012; Balgopal & Wallace, 2013), for acquiring higher-level critical-thinking skills (Momsen, et al., 2010), and for fostering lower-level skills such as factual comprehension (Turbek et al., 2016).

It is unclear that there is a standard time for students to learn the correct structure for composing scientific literature. One common structure for reporting research is the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (IMRaD) structure (Day, 1989; Sollaci & Pereira, 2004). Instruction in IMRaD in high school may be minimal, even in Advanced Placement (AP) science courses that promise college credit (Purcell et al., 2013). One reason for this lack of instruction is that teaching writing during class reduces time available for teaching scientific facts and the scientific process, so high school teachers leave it off the curriculum (Turbek et al., 2016). Therefore, it may be essential for college faculty to teach scientific writing. But college faculty have the same scheduling problems as high school teachers, with perhaps more reasons—class size, lack of teaching assistants, lack of training in writing instruction (discussed below), time constraints from department-mandated coverage requirements, etc. As a result, students not only fail to learn IMRaD, but they also lose a valuable tool for learning scientific reasoning in general. Momsen et al. (2010) found that undergraduate science exams primarily test lower-level thinking skills; they suggest that large classes with few teaching assistants make it difficult to assign higher-level writing tasks. Students who are not asked to write in their introductory science classes also might not learn how to explain how researchers use data to arrive at a conclusion, as Speth et al. (2010) found in their study, in which most of the biology students could not write a scientific claim or a correct warrant, either quantitatively or logically. For these reasons, we argue that writing needs to be a standard learning objective for introductory science courses, especially (but not only) for those designed for science majors.

Unfortunately, science faculty are not often trained in undergraduate writing instruction. Like many of his biologist peers, Lampert completed a PhD at an R1 in the United States, but received no pedagogical training in writing instruction. This lack of training means that writing instruction is often left to English faculty. As we discovered in asking our STEM colleagues both locally and nationally, many science faculty no longer assign lab reports because they feel unprepared to teach writing. This creates problems for students; Pearson has had students complain that their science professors do not sufficiently explain how to do lab reports, but then deduct points on the pretext that students have been taught elsewhere. Students understandably may be discouraged from learning how to write scientific reports.

Science majors might not find their English composition courses helpful, as composition faculty are generally trained in other writing genres, and many receive little to no graduate training in IMRaD. Pearson learned about IMRaD through an interdisciplinary graduate pedagogy course; however, this course was not required for all graduate students. Therefore, many composition instructors organize their courses around genres such as personal essays and literary analysis (Sutton, 1997; Hall, 2006). Even composition faculty trained in the writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) approach, which promotes writing outside the English department, are not necessarily ready for STEM genres, since WAC guidelines recommend that discipline-specific genres should be reserved for upper-division courses (WAC Clearinghouse, n.d.). Moreover, composition courses, especially first-year composition (FYC) courses, are not easily set up for scientific experimentation, which is the focus of IMRaD papers. Our institution, like many U.S. colleges and universities, requires two semesters of FYC, the second semester of which has traditionally—and in many cases, still is—focused on literary analysis, leaving students without training in how to write descriptive, technical science literature. Although some schools have moved away from combining literature and composition, the problem remains how to create—much less teach—a composition course that simultaneously meets the needs of STEM, humanities, business, and education students.

Transferability is especially difficult since IMRaD structure is not something students would independently figure out without explicit instruction in the format. Although it is logical to those who have learned it, Pearson, who has taught it annually since 2010, finds that the section divisions work against how students process their experiments. Students want to combine results into the methods section because they flow together naturally in their heads as one event. Similarly, students find it difficult to separate the discussion from the results, again because they flow together naturally in their minds, as students want to explain their results right away instead of waiting until a later section to do so. Without being specially trained in IMRaD structure, students are unlikely to figure it out on their own. Between composition faculty not teaching IMRaD and science faculty who are uncomfortable teaching writing, science students enter their major with little training in scientific composition (Rice, 1998).

In searching for a better method of teaching IMRaD structure to science majors, we identified linked courses, in which a single group of students enrolls in separate courses (Luebke, 2002), as the pedagogical model to test in this study. In fall 2017, we developed linked courses for 16 first-semester students at our institution. We named our cohort SCALE (Scientific Communication and Literature Education), and students took paired introductory biology and FYC courses. As described by Gammill et al. (1992), our aim was to link a mostly “content” course (introductory biology) with a “skills” course (FYC) and improve the ability of our students to compose original scientific literature. We hypothesized that participation would improve student confidence in reading and composing primary scientific literature and would improve student ability to compose in IMRaD. To test this hypothesis, we used surveys and a writing assignment, the former also given to a group of nonparticipants. We predicted that participants would report more confidence and ability to read and compose scientific literature compared to nonparticipants and would improve their adherence to the IMRaD structure by the end of the courses. Approval for human subjects research was provided by our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), study #2017-114-C&U.


Course descriptions

The introductory biology course (hereafter referred to as BIOL 1) is the first course of the introductory biology sequence for science majors. This course covers concepts such as the nature of science and the theory of evolution as a unifying principle, water and biomolecule chemistry, cell biology and physiology, and heredity and genetics. BIOL 1 is a four-hour course, with approximately three hours of classroom instruction and two hours of lab weekly taught by one instructor. Each section is capped at 24 students, and 19 sections were offered fall 2017.

The linked English course (hereafter referred to as ENGL 1), is the first course in a two-course sequence in FYC required of all our students, although students can skip the course through Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. The course is three credit hours and class size is capped at 24 students. At our university, there is no required text or required set of assignments, so classes vary widely in subject matter and writing genres, as well as in research requirements. For example, in some sections research means simply close reading and analysis of sources provided by the instructor or by the textbook, whereas in others, research means students finding sources in library databases and web searches.

We recruited 16 students to enroll in both courses together during 2017 summer orientation sessions. All students graduated high school in 2017. In the fall semester, Lampert taught three BIOL 1 sections, one of which was linked and two that lacked this intervention. The two linked sections were scheduled so that ENGL 1 came later the same day as BIOL 1 lab, so that students could practice writing about what they had just done. The linked BIOL 1 section was taught traditionally in the classroom, with identical content delivery, assignments, quizzes, and exams to other sections taught by Lampert. The only activities in BIOL 1 exposing students to scientific literature in BIOL 1 course were a brief lecture demonstrating the parts of a published article (Welch et al., 2017) and a homework assignment in which students analyzed the data from a published article (Lampert et al., 1990).

We modified the BIOL 1 lab pedagogies to include an undergraduate research experience (URE) to allow our students to write about original research. Students completed a brief guided research project, and then spent lab meetings developing and completing their own research based on plant-arthropod interactions. Four teams completed four distinct projects. Students were provided worksheets to guide their activities instead of a lab manual. The linked section had no practical exam, unlike the other BIOL 1 sections.

The paired ENGL 1 section was developed to teach students to find and read sources, to construct and deliver oral and poster presentations, and to compose publication-quality manuscripts. Table 1 lists and describes the weekly activities in the ENGL 1 course. Students used Hofmann’s Scientific Writing and Communication (2017) to study the structure of each section separately (one week per section), first discussing the components and organization of each section according to her guidelines. Students then analyzed published articles assigned by the BIOL 1 instructor as models, compared them to Hofmann’s guidelines, and drafted their own section. As a result, students wrote their papers one section at a time after learning the purpose and structure of that section and after studying multiple examples. Students submitted two rough drafts of their manuscripts for comments: the first draft covered only the Introduction, Methods, and Works Cited, so that students could revise these before turning in the second rough draft, which was a draft of the full paper and could be revised again before the final deadline. Final poster presentations of the research occurred during the final BIOL 1 lab meeting time and were open to the university community. (This study focuses on the written lab report and not on the oral and poster presentations.)

BIOL 1 student surveys

An eight-item questionnaire was given to both linked course participants and a control group consisting of other BIOL 1 students taught by the same instructor. The questionnaire was administered on the first and last week of the semester. Students self-reported their ability and confidence in the following four tasks: (1) write an essay, (2) write a lab report, (3) read peer-reviewed literature, and (4) read the textbook. Survey prompts used a Likert scale, and responses were coded 1–5 (“Strongly disagree” = 1; “Strongly agree” = 5). The questionnaires also collected data related to previous relevant experience. Students were prompted to list previous courses that required reading of scientific literature and composition of lab reports and share the year they took such courses.

Two reliability tests were performed to determine which questionnaire results to analyze. The first test, which included the four items associated with self-reports of ability, generated a Cronbach’s α of 0.77, above the acceptable coefficient of 0.70. The second test, which included the four items associated with self-reports of ability, generated a Cronbach’s α of 0.73. For both tests, the items related to the textbook increased Cronbach’s α if deleted; these two items were discarded from further analyses. Models for analysis were selected based on observations of frequency histograms for each variable. The remaining items were analyzed using generalized linear models, treating score (1–5) as an ordinal probit response and including group, questionnaire time, and the interaction term as explanatory variables. In this analysis, a significant (P < 0.05) interaction term indicated that the difference between the first and last week questionnaire responses varied between groups. All analyses were completed using the Reliability Analysis and Generalized Linear Models procedures of SPSS for Windows v. 23.

Adherence to IMRaD structure

We compared the ability of our participants to adhere to the IMRaD structure before and after completing the course. Students were assigned a 1000-word IMRaD report based on the first week’s lab exercise, due at the end of the first week. The report was rewritten at the end of the course. These reports were graded for completion only to incentivize completion and were assigned as a standard procedure of the course.

We determined adherence to IMRaD using two measures. First, we developed a rubric to quantify the number of correctly composed components and errors. Our rubric enabled us to assign a numerical value with a maximum of 4–8, depending on the section, to each of the four IMRaD sections. Second, we quantified the misplaced text, or number of times each student wrote material in the wrong section (e.g., repeating methods in the results). These scores were compared using related-samples Wilcoxon signed rank tests using the nonparametric tests procedure of SPSS v. 23. The percent of students misplacing text in each of the four IMRaD sections was compared using four 2 × 2 contingency tables analyzed with Fisher’s exact tests, in which rows (groups) were before and after and columns (outcomes) were numbers of students misplacing and not misplacing text in that section. These tests were performed using the Crosstabs procedure of SPSS v. 23.



Surveying both groups of BIOL 1107K students revealed that there was only one difference in experience among them. Several of the control group students had previously taken FYC courses because they were second-year students or later, and none of the linked-course group students had. Regardless of group, few students reported having read original literature before the course (31% of linked-course group, 36% of control group). Most students reported having written lab reports previously (68% of linked-course group, 61% of control group), in both biology and chemistry courses. The linked-course group reported less time had passed since they last wrote a lab report

(x ̅ = 1.7 years) years compared to the control group (x ̅ = 3.7 years).

Both the linked-course and control BIOL 1 groups reported an increased ability to write a lab report at the end of the course (χ2 = 4.53, P = 0.033); the factors of group and survey time were not significant (P > 0.05) for the other items (Figure 1a–c). The interaction term differed significantly (P < 0.05) for all six items tested, indicating that the changes in responses before and after BIOL 1 were different between the two groups. A more positive difference before and after the course was evident in the control group. The linked-course group indicated increased abilities and confidence for all three measures tested (Figure 1a–c), except for confidence in reading peer-reviewed articles (Figure 1c). None of the self-reported ability or confidence ratings were different before and after BIOL 1 in the control group (P > 0.05) (Figure 1a–c).

Table 1. Weekly schedule and pedagogy of the linked first-year composition course.


First-year composition


Talk about the role of audience in scientific writing, discuss how to use the BIOL text


Reading IMRaD format: an overview of the different sections and what to look for as readers (lecture/discussion)


Words and word location: Discuss Hofmann chapters 1–3 (on word choice and word placement), and work through her exercises


Technical sentences and paragraphs: Discuss Hofmann chapters 4 and 6 (on said topics), and work through exercises


Writing the first draft and APA format: Discuss the drafting process (and Hofmann chapter 7 on drafting) and have students set up APA templates for their essays


Introduction sections: Discuss Hofmann chapter 11 (Introductions) and then analyze the Introduction sections of three articles assigned in their BIOL class


References and plagiarism, presentations: Discuss Hofmann chapters 8 and 30 (on said topics); students also drafted their presentations (see Week 8 below)


Oral presentations: Students had to individually present their project, summarizing their background research, goals, and methods


Drafting: Revise the background/goals components of their presentations into a formal Introduction section

Start Methods sections: Discuss Hofmann chapter 12 (Methods)


Analyze the Methods sections from the three assigned articles

Finish drafting (in class) and turn in Introduction, Methods, and Works Cited


Results sections: Discuss Hofmann chapter 13 (Results) and analyze the Results sections from the three assigned articles


Discussion sections: Discuss Hofmann chapter 14 (Discussions) and analyze the Discussion sections from the three assigned articles


Figures and Tables: discuss Hofmann chapter 9 (on said topic)

Finish drafting and turn in full drafts


Poster Design, Abstracts, Titles: discuss Hofmann chapters 29, 15, and 16 (on said topics), and discuss the design elements of professional posters


Poster Drafts: students discussed each others’ posters and made recommendations

Formal Presentations: students presented their research—including posters and Q&A—to a group of biology faculty, biology graduate students, and administrators

Final Papers and Posters were submitted electronically during the class final exam period

IMRaD structure composition

Participants in the linked courses improved their ability to write the methods section (P = 0.046), particularly in the quantitative components (naming units of measure, describing data analysis). Scores for this section were 34% higher after the courses compared to before (Figure 2). Mean scores were also 20–30% higher for the other three sections; however, these did not differ significantly (P > 0.05) because those sections had more error among values (Figure 2). The number of participants misplacing text was 27% (results) to 100% (discussion) lower following the course, compared to before the course. Fisher’s exact test was unable to show that any of these decreases were significant (P > 0.05 in all cases), likely because fewer than half of the participants misplaced text in any section.

Figure 1
Mean (± SE) self-ratings, coded from a Likert-style questionnaire in which “strongly disagree” was coded “1” and “strongly agree” was coded “5.” White bars represent questionnaires completed before the course, while gray bars represent questionnaires completed after the course. Questionnaire items, as follows: (a) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to write an essay”; (b) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to write a lab report”; (c) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to read scientific liter

Mean (± SE) self-ratings, coded from a Likert-style questionnaire in which “strongly disagree” was coded “1” and “strongly agree” was coded “5.” White bars represent questionnaires completed before the course, while gray bars represent questionnaires completed after the course. Questionnaire items, as follows: (a) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to write an essay”; (b) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to write a lab report”; (c) “I (am able/am confident in my ability) to read scientific literature”. Lowercase letters indicate significant (P < 0.05) differences in self-ratings according to generalized linear models.

Figure 2
Mean (± SE) adherence to the IMRaD structure before and after participation in the linked biology and first-year composition courses. Asterisks indicate significantly different means according to Wilcoxon signed-ranked tests.

Mean (± SE) adherence to the IMRaD structure before and after participation in the linked biology and first-year composition courses. Asterisks indicate significantly different means according to Wilcoxon signed-ranked tests.


Participants in our linked courses had a unique opportunity to take an FYC course developed for their introductory biology course. We found substantial improvements in self-reported confidence and ability to read and compose in the discipline, especially compared to a control group taking only the introductory biology course, even though the control group had either previously completed FYC (60% were sophomores or above) or were simultaneously taking FYC with no IMRaD instruction. The inclusion of independent research, which also is associated with several beneficial outcomes (Brownell et al., 2015; Auchincloss et al., 2014; Bangera & Brownell, 2014), may have also positively affected student responses. Only modest improvements were observed in participants’ technical writing ability; they improved most with writing the methods section. Our study echoes previous findings (e.g., Rauschert et al., 2011; Brownell et al., 2015; Woodham et al., 2016) that including literature in lower-level science courses can improve confidence and composition skills.

We assert that linking a FYC scientific literature course with their first science course strongly affected student confidence in composition. Confidence and self-efficacy are critical to academic achievement (Zimmerman et al., 1992; Stankov & Lee, 2008) and are correlated with better final grades (Shoemaker, 2010). As previously noted, our linked-course students gained confidence in their ability to read and write scientific reports, but not our control group. Our control group had much higher initial confidence than the linked-course participants, who may have been more intimidated at the start of their first semester of college, particularly in participating in a writing-focused learning community. The control group’s initial overconfidence may be due to their previous college experience, including a traditional FYC, a remedial science course, and/or an earlier attempt at a traditional BIOL 1, as well as their participation in a traditional curriculum rather than in a more authentic, or inquiry-based, curriculum (Gormally et al., 2009). The control group may have lost confidence when struggling to write with normal course instruction and normal writing feedback. A longitudinal study that tracks cohorts can confirm whether increased confidence resulting from interventions such as linked courses lead to long-term improvement in academic achievement.

Participants in the linked courses showed significant improvement in writing the methods of an IMRaD paper, but improved adherence to other sections was not significant. In our experience, students produce more technical errors writing the methods section than with other sections. For instance, students write methods as instructions rather than as a narrative (Hofmann, 2017), and include too much detail about basic methods and setup (e.g., making an artificial diet for caterpillars) while omitting or insufficiently describing the variables being measured, how those variables are measured, or how the data are analyzed. We believe our linked-course students improved writing the methods section because they had more preparation from the lab work and/or because they developed their own research projects.

The discussion sections, however, did not improve significantly in the linked-course students. The discussion section may be most intimidating to novice writers (Hofmann, 2017), but may also indicate how well students understand how data lead to a conclusion. The one place discussion sections did improve was with one of the most common errors (25–35% of students), that is, text repeated in multiple sections or misplaced. Although we did not find an effect of group in this error decreasing over the semester, students in the linked courses were misplacing discussion content less frequently. Misplaced text may be reduced with assignments that train students specifically to identify and move it to the correct section.

Reflective writing by linked course participants revealed the components of the experience they found most rewarding and most challenging. Almost all the students mentioned that their improved reading and composition abilities would benefit their future coursework and careers. Students also indicated they learned more about biology by collecting data from living animals than they would learn in traditional classrooms. Students all suggested further interest in independent research following the course, although many of them preferred to pursue other biomedical fields. Students said the most challenging component of the learning community was designing and completing their research project. Students had little to no experience leading their own research projects and essentially no experience with quantitatively or statistically evaluating their data. Despite these challenges, students indicated that their research projects helped them become better researchers, which agrees with other literature (Brownell et al., 2015).


Research indicates that all introductory science students can benefit from being introduced to IMRaD literature (Sutton, 1997; Thompson & Blankinship, 2015). Students in our linked-courses community substantially increased their confidence about writing and improved their ability to compose IMRaD literature. Providing experience and building confidence may be important in later courses when students are first exposed to original research. Students in science literature and writing linked courses may struggle less when assigned activities using IMRaD literature in later courses, although some skills may require repeated instruction in multiple classes and semesters. While we recognize that some high school teachers and general education professors do teach scientific reading and writing, we have found that this is not always the case. Science students may not have learned scientific reading and writing in high school and may not be asked to practice them until they are in their majors. Therefore, we argue that these skills should be introduced as early in their college curriculum as possible and that linked courses are effective and engaging educational practices. Moreover, collaboration among STEM, humanities, and social science courses is an effective high-impact educational practice and is recommended for preparing students to develop innovative solutions to emerging challenges (U.S. DoE, 2016). Our linked courses provide a possible model for collaborative educational experiences between natural sciences and other disciplines. STEM disciplines such as chemistry and physics frequently include lab reports, possibly more often than biology courses, and courses in these disciplines would benefit greatly from collaborations with composition and literature courses. ■


Evan Lampert ( is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of North Georgia in Oakwood, Georgia. J. Stephen Pearson ( is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of North Georgia in Oakwood, Georgia.


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General Science Literacy Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Postsecondary

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