Left Brain, Meet Right: Integrating Writing into Science and More
by The Propello Crew on Sep 14, 2023 7:00:00 AM
We’re often quick to categorize ourselves as “left-brained” or “right-brained,” Type A or Type B, an analytical number-cruncher or an artistically inclined creative. But, while each of us may have more strengths in one field than another, research shows that blurring otherwise rigid lines between disciplines is extremely beneficial for students — particularly when integrating writing into STEM subjects.
According to a meta-analysis published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), writing about content enhances learning across all grade levels and all subjects, including science and mathematics. The study concludes that writing about material supports deeper learning and helps students practice retrieving concepts, enabling them to recall information easily in the future.
Here’s why writing is beneficial for students, what it looks like in the science classroom, and how educators can successfully implement writing in non-ELA lessons:
What are the Benefits of Integrating Writing into Other Subjects?
Traditionally, much of students’ experience with writing happened in ELA classrooms. But bringing writing into other subjects helps them deeply grasp content and concepts while boosting literacy and communication, building a solid foundation for success in any discipline for the rest of their academic lives and careers.
Here are a few key advantages of integrating writing into science and other STEM subjects:
- It helps students prepare for a rapidly evolving future
Today, employers are seeking well-rounded professionals who can think critically and creatively and communicate effectively. In response, education policymakers are focusing on requirements that go beyond core academic content, pushing for better career readiness through improved intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.
Beyond career-readiness, many frameworks also aim to prepare students to be socially and environmentally responsible citizens by prioritizing creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and empathy. And research shows that writing increases critical thinking performance while helping students be more productive and involved citizens.
- It boosts academic proficiency
Writing taps into students’ ingenuity while using content knowledge. When students are asked to write about a topic, they’re challenged to think carefully about each idea as they put their thoughts on paper, make connections between concepts, and re-present the knowledge they’re taking in (instead of simply regurgitating facts). A study published in the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education found that “Using diversified types of writing enabled students in treatment groups to score significantly better on conceptual questions and total test scores than those in comparison groups.”
- It enables students to move information from working to long-term memory
As an educator, it can be frustrating when students struggle to recall something they learned just days before. Too often, students’ working memories become overloaded by the barrage of new information they take in daily, forcing their brains to routinely eject concepts before transferring knowledge to their long-term memories. But, in the AERA meta-analysis mentioned above, researchers concluded that writing about content material supports students' learning by consolidating information in their long-term memories. This makes it easier for students to build on knowledge as you introduce new concepts.
What Does Writing in Science Look Like?
If you haven’t used writing in a non-ELA subject before, it can be difficult to envision. Here are a few examples of what writing might look like in a science classroom:
- Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER)
Effective communication skills are vital to science, particularly when making observations, predicting outcomes, and explaining discoveries. CER is a classroom tool that fosters communication similar to how real-life scientists express their learnings, and is an excellent opportunity for integrating writing.
Here’s how this might look in action:
Start by asking students to answer a prompt or question, like “Why do rainbows occur?” and ask them to record a claim based on their existing knowledge. A student may claim that rainbows form because the light from the sun meets the moisture in the air.
Next, ask students to justify their claim with their existing knowledge of the topic. If you ask at the beginning of a lesson, they might rely on anecdotal evidence. If you’re asking them after studying the topic, they should use scientific data as evidence. For example, their evidence for why rainbows occur will likely include more sophisticated information after a lesson on refraction than before.
Finally, ask students to connect the evidence to their claim. For example, their explanation might be that while light appears white, it’s made up of multiple colors which refract at different angles when they hit water droplets and create rainbows.
- Metacognitive prompting
Similar to CER, metacognitive prompting asks students to recall information they’ve learned, apply learnings in different contexts, and think about ideas from multiple viewpoints.
For example, if you’re studying pollution, you might prompt students to write about how local ecosystems might be impacted by residents’ daily habits like recycling. This challenges students to tie learnings directly to real-life experiences, supports the use of scientific vocabulary in everyday situations, and helps them understand that science is not simply a discipline or career path but a lens to help us understand our world.
- Envisioning a future career to drive engagement
Writing can also increase student engagement with the material and drive excitement about a potential future in STEM. For example, you might challenge students to imagine themselves as professional scientists 20 years from now. Ask them what sort of scientist they’d choose to be and why. Students might see themselves as future marine biologists, astronomers, or medical laboratory scientists, giving them confidence in their capabilities and allowing them to see a world of possibility.
According to a randomized experiment to improve student transition to college, shared by the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), “Digital story-writing projects and on-campus writing marathons helped these students gain insight on their academic and career futures.”
- Researching and presenting reports on the history of science
Another way to engage students in science through writing is by asking them to research and write about influential scientists throughout history, significant scientific discoveries and inventions, or early lore and myths people used to explain phenomena before modern scientific evidence existed. This can be especially useful when you can align learning across subjects. For example, students might connect a science unit to a scientific discovery they discussed in social studies or folklore they read about in ELA.
Successfully Implementing Writing Across Subjects
At Propello, we believe it’s vital to leverage writing across curricula, but we also understand it can be challenging to get started. There’s more than one way to integrate writing into science or other non-ELA subjects, we encourage you to get creative and look for opportunities within existing processes.
For example, rather than jumping directly into a classroom discussion on phenomena, ask students to engage in a few minutes of free writing to compose their thoughts. By giving them a chance to think through new ideas, form arguments, and identify evidence, you can enable students to communicate clearly and confidently. Leveraging writing in science and other STEM subjects also fosters a habit of thinking critically and gathering evidence to support claims before speaking on a topic, which is a practice that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.