"The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?" -- William Zinsser
Why "Reasoned Writing?"
"Reasoned Writing" (RW) and "A Framework for Scientific Papers" (AFSP) are intended to help students more clearly reason and communicate.
Instead of logic and probability, people often rely on biased guesses to make conclusions (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974). However, clear and systematic reasoning is an important component of the scientific method (Platt, 1964). For students, using the scientific method involves active learning that integrates skill and content learning (Michael, 2006). The challenge of scientific discovery facilitates "transformational" education, where both instructors and students collaborate to make discoveries (Full et al., 2015; Slavich and Zimbardo, 2012). Therefore, opportunities to discuss and use systematic reasoning and the scientific method can be an important part of science education.
However, some areas of science education (e.g. Biology) often focus on rote learning, with relatively fewer opportunities for students to practice higher-level analytical and evaluative thinking (Zheng et al., 2008; Arum and Roksa, 2010). Therefore, some science curricula may benefit from using the scientific method in more class activities. The RW and AFSP modules seek to help instructors and students apply scientific reasoning and methods to a specific aspect of science: written and spoken communication.
Scientific communication applies reasoning to an important practical application.
Written (and spoken) communication provides opportunities for students to understand and apply scientific reasoning. Effective communication involves high-level thinking such as synthesis and evaluation (Bloom, 1956; Rochford and Borchert, 2011). Synthesis and evaluation are important components of critical thinking (Gronlund, 2004). Moreover, communication consistently ranks as one of the most important workplace skills (Bloomberg, 2016, Forbes, 2014, GMAT, 2017). However, according to employers, colleges do not sufficiently develop both written and spoken communication (Casner-Lotto, 2006; Chronicle of Higher Education, 2012). Therefore, communication can allow students to learn and apply scientific reasoning while developing valuable skills.
Students may benefit from a structured approach to scientific reasoning and communication.
How can students develop communication skills that improve reasoning? In many cases, students are told to use reasoning and argumentation, but not provided guidance on HOW to construct reasoned arguments (Hillocks, 2010; Heijltjes, 2014). At the undergraduate and graduate level, students are often expected to learn scientific reasoning and writing informally by reading scientific literature (Lin, 1989). However, reading primary literature typically confronts students with new terminology, new concepts, and an unfamiliar written format. Moreover, not all scientific papers employ strong, explicit reasoning (Platt, 1964). Therefore, although reading and emulating scientific literature is undoubtedly useful, being able to use scientific papers to strengthen reasoning and writing is challenging and can take years.
A structured approach can facilitate and expedite the development of scientific reasoning and communication (Greene, 2010). Many academic papers and informal publications provide guidance for scientific writing (Brand, 2001; Brand, 2008; Jirge, 2017; Singh and Mayer, 2014). However, many academic papers and resources about writing are intended for practicing scientists, not for students. For example, Dick Brand's excellent 2001 paper writes "Imagine critical observations as premises of Aristotelian logic leading to a conclusion: If a; and b; and c; and d; then we logically conclude x; or y; or z (where x; y; or z represent hypotheses to be tested)" (Brand, 2001). Although scientists may be familiar with Aristotelian logic, students may not have sufficient background to feel comfortable using logic to structure writing. Therefore, students may benefit from more accessible guidance to help them develop scientific reasoning and writing.
Many accessible books on writing (and specifically scientific writing) are available to instructors and students (Alley, 2008; Booth et al., 2016; Greene, 2010; Green and Lawlor, 2017). Moreover, students have access to online resources for writing (e.g. University of Richmond's Writer's Web, The Purdue OWL, Trent University, etc.). However, strong reasoning is necessary for effective scientific communication. In my estimation, few textbooks or online sources sufficiently address how structured reasoning is essential for effective scientific writing (exceptions include Moriarty, 2007). As far as I can determine, students do not have sufficient access to textbooks or online resources that use reasoning to improve writing (and vice versa).
The process of creating frameworks can improve understanding and communication.
Over the course of their academic careers, students are encouraged to use many frameworks to help understand different subjects. However, using insufficiently-explained rules and frameworks can turn writing into a process of imitation rather than of understanding and creation (Warner, 2018). In my experience, students greatly benefit from creating their own frameworks. The process of creation helps students understand the connections among concepts and information. I find that students are also more invested in frameworks that they create (compared to frameworks that they are given), making it more likely that they will use the frameworks in the future. Therefore, the process of creating conceptual and graphical reasoned frameworks is an important part of the Reasoned Writing approach.
Several barriers may hamper the use of reasoning and writing in science courses.
I hypothesize that several structural barriers may limit the use of the resources (reasoning and writing textbooks/websites) that are available to students, including (but not limited to):
1) Lack of time dedicated to reasoning skills. Science curricula often do not or cannot include dedicated courses for critical reasoning, research methods, and scientific writing (Brand and Huiskes, 2001;Coil et al., 2010; Turbek et al., 2016). Moreover, textbooks and courses on reasoning are often separate from textbooks and courses on writing. Covering scientific reasoning and writing in courses dedicated to other topics may be cost- and time-prohibitive without support (Moskovitz and Kellogg, 2011). Alternatively, addressing reasoning and writing in dedicated courses may also not be the most effective approach to learning (Hattie and Donoghue, 2016; Willingham, 2019). Therefore, an objective of RW/AFSP is to provide support for reasoned communication in the most time-efficient format possible so that the module can be integrated into non-writing courses and labs.
2) Too much information. I hypothesize that existing resources often present instructors and students with too much information. For example, textbooks and other resources about writing often survey a broad range of writing styles instead of focusing on one type of writing (e.g. reasoned arguments; Zinsser, 2006). Textbooks on rhetoric often survey many forms of persuasion in addition to the data-based reasoning used in science (Ramage et al., 2016). Even for reasoned arguments, different authors recommend a range of frameworks (Henderson et al., 2018). For example, basic elements of writing such as structuring paragraphs are the subject of many frameworks, often with overlapping instructions (TEEL, TAXES, AXES, PEEL, TIPTOP, SEED, PIE, etc. etc.). Moreover, many resources for critical thinking and logic are not specific to science and/or potentially very complex (Howson and Urbach, 2005; Moore and Parker, 2017). Therefore, the objective of RW/AFSP is not to widely survey different forms of communication. The objective of RW/AFSP is also not to comprehensively review logic, rhetoric, linguistics, and scientific methodology. Instead, the objective of RW/AFSP is to SIMPLIFY the process of developing reasoned arguments as much as possible. Therefore, RW/AFSP encourages students to create frameworks based on ONE basic structure that can be generalized to different contexts. The structure of Aristotelian logic and the "Classical" rhetorical format used by RW/AFSP is a widely consistent component of many scientific disciplines.
3) Underrepresentation of science in core writing courses. Many resources available to instructors to support critical thinking and writing do not focus on scientific communication. For example, many introductory writing courses and campus writing resources use English literature or other non-scientific writing as course material (Timmerman et al, 2010). Students may not have access to training in scientific writing before being expected to write laboratory reports or other scientific communication. Therefore, the objective of RW/AFSP is to augment writing instruction and quickly improve reasoning and technical writing skills.
Several common practices may detract from teaching scientific reasoning and communication.
In addition to structural barriers, I hypothesize that several common practices also contribute to difficulties with reasoned communication among students:
1) APA or MLA Formatting. In speaking with students over the past 10 years, one theme has consistently emerged. Students convey that undergraduate writing courses emphasize formatting documents to specific guidelines, often using APA style. In my estimation, including formatting requirements comes at the expense of students actually learning to write. I hypothesize that teaching formatting is actually detrimental to writing. Yes, formatting is a type of structure, and attention to detail is one important component of science (Holstein et al., 2015). However, attention to detail is not nearly as important as reasoning for science (Platt, 1964). Moreover, requiring students to structure the least relevant aspects of papers (i.e. margins, bibliographies, etc.) substantially detracts from students being able to structure the most important parts of their paper (i.e. main arguments and everything else).
I hypothesize that when the relatively easy task of formatting is as much a component of assessment as the much more difficult process of constructing strong arguments, students will reasonably focus on formatting. Therefore, formatting is explicitly NOT a part of RW/AFSP, because formatting is NOT writing. Personally, I provide only general guidance about formatting unless absolutely necessary. In my experience, undergraduate students are sufficiently skilled at formatting, and enforcing detailed rules for formatting simply distracts from learning how to effectively write.
2) Inconsistent frameworks. In addition to being overwhelmed by information, students often report that they are confused by inconsistent or conflicting guidance on scientific communication. For example, students may be told to use an argumentative format for the Introduction, a chronological format for the Methods, a descriptive format for the Results, then back to an argumentative format for the Discussion of a scientific paper. Students are instructed to use topic sentences or in-text citations to structure paragraphs while referring to books or papers that do not use topic sentences or in-text citations themselves. Granted, there are many ways of doing science and of science writing, and not a single correct approach. However, in my experience, students benefit from reducing (simplifying) the number of frameworks that they are expected to use when writing. Therefore, in RW/AFSP, I focus on encouraging students to use a SINGLE framework (reasoned argument) to structure most aspects of their communication.
3) Flat guidance structure. Not all aspects of arguments are equally important. However, in my estimation, many instructional materials do not sufficiently emphasize the power of hierarchical frameworks (Dumont, 2009). For example, in many frameworks, elements such as examples are presented at the same level as quantitative evidence (instead of more appropriately in a supportive role). Therefore, in RW/AFSP I make arguments for using hierarchies to strengthen reasoning and communication. Moreover, RW/AFSP seeks to use a hierarchical framework itself to emphasize more important aspects of reasoning and writing.
Reasoned Writing is intended to help students use deliberate, evidence-based practice strategies towards attainable goals.
How can instructors use the RW and AFSP modules to encourage learning? Clearly, there is no simple answer, and exposing students to diverse teaching styles is likely to contribute to the ability of students to transfer and apply skills and knowledge. However, appropriate goal-setting, organizing practice, and providing informative feedback may make it easier for students to learn new information and skills.
Focusing attention on practice (performing "deliberate" practice) towards achieving defined goals can contribute to learning (Ericsson, 2017). The most effective goals are attainable, specific and challenging (Locke and Latham, 2006). In my estimation, an important role for instructors is to determine appropriate goals based on the individual and collective needs of their students. The material in the RW module is intended to be conceptually challenging, but provide concrete goals for using simple, specific, reasoned frameworks to structure different sections of scientific papers.
Instructors can also consider evidence-based learning strategies for content learning. Students can benefit from using frameworks to alternate content presentation with opportunities for practice (Rosenshine, 2012). Interleaving, or other forms of "spacing" practice by providing rest breaks between learning trials, can provide time for reflection and contribute to learning (Son and Simon, 2012). Using "desirable difficulties" such as non-repetitive practice can result in more learning than repetitive blocked practice (Dobson, 2011; Rohrer and Pashler, 2010). Frequent testing and re-testing (self-testing or otherwise) can also enhance learning (Karpicke and Grimaldi, 2012). Providing informative, but not excessive, feedback can also contribute to learning (Hayes et al., 2010; Winstein and Schmidt, 1990). Therefore, RW allows for different approaches to the content, to help instructors select learning strategies appropriate for both students and other class constraints.
One goal of "Reasoned Writing" and "A Framework for Scientific Papers" is to support courses whose primary focus is NOT writing, but content (e.g. laboratories, courses that use case studies, etc.; Full et al, 2015). Therefore, RW and AFSP seek to be flexible and adaptable to many different types of courses. RW and AFSP seek to provide many options for navigating the modules and approaching the material. My hope is that instructors will be able to incorporate information from each module into course activities in a non-linear manner. I welcome suggestions for alternative paths (or any other suggestions, really).
Reasoned Writing / A Framework for Scientific Papers seeks to use simple, consistent frameworks to quickly improve reasoned thinking and communication. My expectation is that the RW / AFSP modules will be strongest when included in courses that involve substantial application, repetition, and feedback (e.g. laboratories or courses based on written case studies), which will allow students to practice and improve their skills.