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Laboratory experiences play a central role in science education. Calls for reform in science education have emphasized the very goals that we strive for when developing laboratory curricula: inquiry-based research experiences that develop students’ science process and communication skills. 1 Despite creating inquiry-based experiences for my students in introductory biology laboratories, I have been less satisfied with student outcomes (i.e., lab reports) and their assessment. I was dismayed that some students lean heavily on their more engaged lab partners during the design and execution of an experiment, but then go home and, using data others had worked hard to generate, write a decent lab report that nevertheless shows little scientific creativity. Conversely, students who may be fully engaged in carrying out the experiment have trouble writing a decent report. Moreover, as lab educators, we strive to create lab experiences that expose students to the process of science as realistically as possible. We embrace the pedagogy of collaborative learning and stress that science itself is a collaborative endeavor, but then what do we do? After we have students design and carry out experiments in a group, and maybe analyze the data in a group, we make them go their separate ways to write a lab report. But that’s not how science is done; it is very hard to find primary articles in the research literature written by one author. We have students collaborate for part of the science process and then send them into solitary confinement to finish the process. Perhaps this is why students hate lab reports so much. (Admittedly, I don’t think many lab instructors like lab reports all that much either.)
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Students fail to see the purpose of the lab report; they see it as a summary of the experiment that reports the “right answer” for a grade. Instead, we need to emphasize science writing as an important part of the collaborative process of science, and show that lab reports are an authentic learning activity that allow for engagement of the material. Collaborative writing provides opportunities for peer instruction that promote critical thinking, enhance decision-making skills, and deepen understanding of the scientific concepts being studied. I had previously tried having students submit group lab reports, but that often leads to one person doing the bulk of the work, and I could never determine who contributed meaningfully to the finished product. That was a major sticking point – how do I evaluate the contribution and participation of each group member?
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This need to assess individual contributions moved me to examine online collaborative writing tools such as GoogleDocs and wikis that store every version of the document. Instructors can compare document versions (using the history log), and can therefore verify and evaluate individual student contributions. Educators have recently started to use wikis to support collaborative and constructivist learning. 2 Educational use of wikis in the sciences has been relatively rare, and usually involved with class notes, but Elliott and Fraiman report on chemistry classes using web-based collaborative lab reports. Their “Chem-Wiki” web space allows student research teams to discuss and report on experimental findings outside of lab time. 3 Since I rely heavily on our college’s learning management system (Moodle) in the laboratory course, I felt it would be better to use a tool within Moodle itself, so I had students in introductory biology use Moodle’s wiki module for collaborative writing of laboratory reports.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The wiki platform allows users to track changes to the document, compare different versions side-by-side, and assess individual student contributions to the group report, as shown above and below.
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The wikis were set up so that each group sees and can edit only their own wiki. After instructions on how to use the wiki module, all student groups first wrote a “practice wiki report,” which allowed all lab instructors to help with any technical problems. All reports had a structured organization that followed the typical lab report format. Student roles were clearly defined — for each report, each student wrote different sections (Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion are all separate “pages” in the wiki), and then all students contributed peer review comments on all sections. The original author of each section then used those comments to write a final version. One student had the role of “Principal Investigator” (PI), which meant they were responsible for finalizing the report, checking for good flow from section to section, similar style, etc. Roles were rotated for subsequent reports, so each student had a turn at being the “PI,” and each student got to write every section of a report. Table 1 depicts these student roles.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 Students were told that both their writing and their contributions to other students’ writing would be assessed. This forces students to reflect upon the quality of their contribution as they review and comment on their peers’ writing. 4 I graded each section of the report (based upon a rubric shared with students) and evaluated contributions made by each student. Each contribution received a score of 0 (essentially worthless), 1 (somewhat useful), or 2 (good, useful comment). Nancovska Serbec et al. note that the quality of contributions rather than the quantity is important in assessing student wiki work. 5 I had students submit a “Team Member Assessment” after every report so I had peer grades for each student. Students’ grades were determined by a combination of: (1) the grade on the report section they wrote, (2) their “contribution factor,” which is their total contribution score relative to the group’s average contribution score, (3) their peer review grades assigned by other group members, and (4) the grade on the completed full report.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 One of the typical benefits of collaborative work using wikis was the peer-to-peer learning that took place, as illustrated in the screenshot below. Students that are more successful would guide less successful students in their writing and understanding of concepts, often pointing out requirements from the rubric or from the writing guidelines that were missed. In some cases, those less successful students would see the working habits and thought processes of the successful students, resulting in a helpful lesson that (I hope) lasted much longer than the writing assignment.
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Assessment and Discussion
To assess the impact of collaborative writing with wikis, I compared the two years of the course with group wiki writing to the two years prior without group writing. Student performance on assignments (lab report grades) was not affected by collaborative writing with wikis. However, student perceptions of the course and of their gains from wiki writing were affected. There was a shift toward a more positive perception (chi-square test for independence; all P<0.05). In this positive shift, more students agreed that (1) the amount of work during lab sessions was appropriate to the time available, (2) the total workload for lab was appropriate, (3) the lab handout readings were clear, and (4) students had opportunities for extra help. The first two perceptions are not surprising; with students writing only part of a report instead of a whole report, they should feel that the workload is lessened. I don’t think students perceive the time spent commenting on the work of peers is as onerous as the time spent writing reports. The last two perceptions were unexpected, because at first glance, they don’t seem to be related to group writing. However, since peers were always at hand to answer questions or make comments on each other’s work, students felt less abandoned during the learning process. No matter the reasons for this shift in perception, any such positive shift can increase student engagement. 6 Even though student grades on assignments were not improved by group wiki writing, the beneficial effects of positive student perception toward such a large introductory science course should not be ignored.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Students’ perceptions of group reports relative to individual reports were also positive. The majority (62-75%) of students reported that, compared to writing individual reports (as they did in the previous semester’s introductory course), writing group reports: (1) helped their understanding of the concepts presented, (2) helped improve their scientific writing, (3) helped them think about the strengths and weaknesses of their writing, and (4) helped increase confidence in their ability to write scientifically.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Students’ open-ended responses were very similar. Typical, positive responses talked about the beneficial aspects of peer learning and the less stressful workload:
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “It made effective use of my time during the year. The lab reports offered a chance to more fully investigate the labs we conducted without the effort of writing a whole lab report. At the same time we were able to learn how to write better because of the feedback from our group and also by observing other’s work.”
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 3 “Using the wiki was fine but I hated having group projects I felt like my grade in this class suffered because of my group members and their inefficiency to get their work done.”
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 Another benefit of group wiki lab reports was that, rather than simply edit someone else’s writing, students would post comments with tips for improving a group member’s writing. This leads to a higher level of ownership and responsibility on the part of each student towards what they have written. 7 Using peer reviews and group discussion in the wikis, the focus is not only on the content of the finished lab report, but also on science writing as a creative and iterative process. 8
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 About the author: Michael O’Donnell is a Principal Lecturer and Laboratory Coordinator in the Department of Biology at Trinity College, Connecticut. His teaching philosophy is to get students to be active participants in the creative process of science.
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- National Research Council, National Science Education Standards (The National Academies Press, 1996), http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962; National Research Council, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning (The National Academies Press, 2000), http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9596. ↩
- Kevin Parker and Joseph Chao, “Wiki as a Teaching Tool,” Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects 3, no. 1 (2007): 57–72, http://editlib.org/p/44798. ↩
- Edward W. Elliott and Ana Fraiman, “Using Chem-Wiki To Increase Student Collaboration through Online Lab Reporting,” Journal of Chemical Education 87, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 54–56, http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ed800022b. ↩
- Xavier de Pedro Puente, “New Method Using Wikis and Forums to Evaluate Individual Contributions in Cooperative Work While Promoting Experiential Learning:: Results from Preliminary Experience,” in Proceedings of the 2007 International Symposium on Wikis, WikiSym ’07 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2007), 87–92, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1296951.1296961. ↩
- I.N. Šerbec, M. Strnad, and J. Rugelj, “Assessment of Wiki-supported Collaborative Learning in Higher Education,” in 2010 9th International Conference on Information Technology Based Higher Education and Training (ITHET), 2010, 79–85, http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/ITHET.2010.5480060. ↩
- David L. Neumann and Michelle Hood, “The Effects of Using a Wiki on Student Engagement and Learning of Report Writing Skills in a University Statistics Course,” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 25, no. 3 (2009): 382–398, http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet25/neumann.html. ↩
- Ina Blau and Avner Caspi, “Sharing and Collaborating with Google Docs: The Influence of Psychological Ownership, Responsibility, and Student’s Attitudes on Outcome Quality,” in Proceedings of the E-Learn 2009 World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education, Vancouver, Canada (Chesapeake, VA: AACE, 2009), 3329–3335, http://www.openu.ac.il/research_center/download/Sharing_collaborating_Google_Docs.pdf. ↩
- This essay was originally delivered at a conference presentation, and the slides are available at Michael O’Donnell, “Science Writing, Wikis, and Collaborative Learning” (presented at the Teaching Millenials in the New Millennium, Center for Teaching and Learning conference, Trinity College, Hartford CT, April 2011), http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/millennials/5. ↩