Sunday, March 29, 2009

Those undergrads are killing me again.

Either I was really really smart as an undergrad or our education (at least in Canada) is going to hell in a hand basket today. The course I am grading is a 300 level science course which is designed to teach students how to write a scientific research paper for submission to a science journal. Notice the emphasis on science! We are not teaching them to write, we are teaching them to write scientifically.
I am the first to admit that I do not have the best writing skills, especially on this here blog. I tend to hit publish without proofreading. I type out my thoughts and go. However this a personal blog. Anything that is submitted in a professional setting, ie emails to professors, help lines, research proposals, scholarship applications etc are read and reread to ensure I am clear and concise. If I am submitting something (ie scholarship application), I will re-assess >100x myself, then I will have a colleagure, friend, mentor review the application multiple times prior to submission. I do not think I ever submitted the following paragraph as part of an undergraduate research paper:
"More studies have show that the relationship between a and b has recently been found in longitudinal and cross-sectional studies in men and women" *
or
"With cross-sectional studies looking at factors such as l, m, p, and e level strengthen the difference in the mean of a between group1 and group2 is even more significant. Also the supporting references that central c leading to r, this ripple effect alters metabolic state and increases the chances of disease 1 and 2. These trends move closer to null; there is a significant difference amoung group1 and group2" *

* For obvious reason I don't want to say what the particular research was, the last thing I would want is for someone to figure out who the students are. Any health reseach subject can be subsituted into the italicized words. For example if you were studying Parkisons, that relationship between aluminum intake and parkisons has been..

How do you say to a student, go take english classes???

11 comments:

Propter Doc said...

I generally tell the students that I deal with not to try to sound scientific. I tell them to write formally (no contractions, no text talk) but write in simple sentences, without phrases like 'on one hand'. As the topic is scientific, it will sound it without trying. Many of my students can barely write in simple English with out the added complexity of using all those phrases that come with experienced writing styles.

Put a good writing and grammar style book on their reading list :)

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

At the next class tell them that Strunk and White is available at the library ;-)

Melanie said...

Yikes - I remember similar writing when I TAed the upper-level genetics lab course. Not fun. The scary thing? Doesn't the university require undergrads to take a full year of English? WTF are they teaching in those classes?

ScientistMother said...

Propter Doc - welcome to the blog! I hope the read more comments from you. I fully agree that simple is the best way to go. The point of the course is more how to lay out a paper for a research article. Introducing the topic, explaining clearly why you're asking the question, its importance / relevance. How to write a results section etc. The assumption of course is that you actually know how to write...

Amanda - I'm just the marker, I have no contact with the students, I will make the recommendation to the instructor.

Mel - WTF are they teaching them is right. Some of the issue seems to be that english isn't the student first language, but then don't they take the TOFEL before being admitted? And they're in 3rd year, surely language is not as big an issue??

Tina said...

I've been going through this recently, too, grading formal lab reports. I guess it is a continent wide problem!

How do I tell a student to go take English classes? Bluntly. I tell them that their writing skills need improvement, and that there are tutors in the university learning center who are very helpful, and that they need to Go Get Help.

chall said...

As a nonEnglish person who has tried to work through the writing problem ;) I would definetly recommend going back to basics. the main problem, as I see it in your examples, is that the students don't know how to structure a sentence and then they cram to much into it (since they can't make it work). Alas, do a Gramham Greene: short concise sentences and when the paragraph is made out of all those shorter ones. See if there is a possibility of combining one or two.....

Of course, this is a very tedious job but if you don't know how to write, it is going to take longer time.

Also, my present mentor (being American and all) suggested a new way of writing a paper that I actually can see a point of. Write shorter points under each paragraph so you can visualise he structure and then build sentences around that.

hm, you said you weren't the instructor though... but I thought I'd chip in with a few comments regardless.

good luck with the grading (and not turning mad!)

Isis the Scientist said...

That made me eyes water, SM. Doesn't your MRU have a writers center?

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

DrDrA at Blue Lab Coats had a series recently on constructing good sentences and paragraphs. Obviously none of your students read it... That was just depressing.

Mrs. CH said...

The lack of grammar/writing knowledge these days is amazing to me. That's what you get when kids are taught that spelling phonetically is okay, and they're never corrected!

Brenda said...

Oh my. I don't know if I could read many paragraphs like those without pulling my hair out. I'm one of those weirdos that have an English degree but also saw the wisdom in acquiring a science degree or two. I think part of the problem is a general lack of respect for the rules of writing. I also think that a lot of people don't realize that writing takes practice. Texting doesn't count. Oi.

Love the blog!

microbiologist xx said...

That made my head hurt. I hope that was the worst of it.