An academic email list that I’m on has started a discussion of lab writing, pointing out that students in some lab classes spend more time on writing lab reports in a quasi-journal-article format format than they do taking and analyzing data. This “feels ” wrong in many ways, and the person who kicked off the discussion did so by asking for alternatives to the journal-article style lab report.
This is a recurring discussion in physics education, because everybody who teaches lab courses struggles with this issue (guess what I’m procrastinating from grading right now…). It’s made much worse by the fact that many students, particularly in intro courses, write so badly that it’s painful to read their labs. Even more annoying are the students who clearly could do better, but have chosen not to for some reason (I get really annoyed when students email me lab reports that are riddled with spelling errors, because I know that they can see the exact same squiggly red underlines that I do when I open their reports).
The problem is, technical writing is an important skill for a scientist, and something that science majors need to learn. Which means we have to teach it in some way, and most of the alternatives I’ve seen proposed don’t serve that purpose– oral exams are a great way to tell whether a student understands the lab, and lab-specific questionnaires are an okay way of getting at that question, but they don’t teach writing. Blog posts or non-technical write-ups involve some writing, but it’s not technical writing. And anybody who thinks it’s easier for students to write pop-science style articles (Scientific American is the usual suggested template) has never tried to write good pop-science articles. It’s really hard to do well, in some ways harder to do well than technical writing.
The best compromise cop-out seems to be having students write pieces of lab reports– just an Abstract, say, or just the Conclusion. Which sorta-kinda teaches technical writing, and does at least produce less volume of material to grade, but it’s not ideal by any stretch. Again, writing disembodied sections of a report can feel harder than writing the full report would be, particularly if it’s something like an Abstract or Conclusion, which require you to know what you would have put in all the sections you’re not writing.
So it’s a Hard Problem, and I don’t have a good solution. Anybody out there with brilliant ideas along these lines should feel free to leave them (or pointers to them) in the comments, though.