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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2000

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Collaborative Instruction by Writing and Library Faculty: A Two-Tiered Approach to the Teaching of Scientific Writing

Deborah Huerta
Science Librarian
George R. Cooley Science Library
Colgate University

Victoria E. McMillan
Research Associate in Biology
Chair, Interdisciplinary Writing Department
Colgate University


We describe the results of six years of experimentation with the collaborative teaching of scientific writing to college undergraduates at both beginning and advanced levels. Our goal was to devise a two-course sequence for students interested in health and natural sciences, with emphasis on information literacy and analysis, effective reading, drafting and revising strategies. Beginning science students need help with many basic aspects of college-level writing and information-seeking skills, as well as an introduction to the most common types of writing assigned in introductory science courses -- the lab report and the short review paper. Advanced students are ready to learn sophisticated approaches to scientific information retrieval as well as the style and format of professional journal articles. They are also in a position to appreciate the ways in which scientific writing is molded and constrained by the scientific method, by the diversity of ways in which scientists communicate both formally and informally, and by the impact of the digital revolution on scholarly communication. Both courses are organized around peer review of student work-in-progress, with the submission of a portfolio of writing twice during the semester. We employ information technology as appropriate. Together we plan and teach all aspects of both courses in order to model the interrelated nature of research and writing. This collaboration by science and library faculty, we feel, holds exciting prospects for the future.


At predominantly undergraduate liberal-arts colleges such as Colgate University, cooperative instruction involving science librarians and science teaching faculty most often occurs in concert with a course-related research project (Farber 1999; Winner 1998). However, library instruction sessions are not always effective at providing consistent help for students with increasingly sophisticated information retrieval and critical thinking needs (Farber 1999; Gill and Burke 1999; Krest and Carle 1999; Walter 2000). Other approaches include intensive library laboratories as a segment or component of a course (Chisman 1998; Woodward 1996).

In addition, science writing instruction has become increasingly valued by science faculty (Carle and Krest 1998), reflecting faculty concern about the quality of student research papers, especially those generated largely from inappropriate Internet sources. Like Dennis Isbell (1995) working with American Studies at ASU West, we saw the need for a cohesive approach offering information literacy skills intertwined with science writing instruction. We recognized that library anxiety and composition anxiety (Onwuegbuzie 1997) often accompany one another and there must be a way to work through those impasses with students. We felt that this method would benefit beginning science undergraduates and science majors at different levels (Francis and Fisher 1995) in their education.

The Collaboration

We have co-taught two different courses in scientific writing since 1994. This fall we celebrate our 10th course together. Our partnership began several years earlier when Debbie was regularly invited to teach one-hour library instruction sessions for Vicky's courses in invertebrate biology or critical issues in health. We often discussed the benefits of teaching a course for science students where a composition instructor/biologist (Vicky) and a science librarian (Debbie) could walk through the research process with students step by step (Stein and Lamb 1998). We suspected that student procrastination, in part, and "writing blocks" might be somewhat alleviated if students were confident about how to obtain appropriate information. We knew that students approached research paper assignments in a linear fashion, assuming they would first do the research and then write the paper. We felt they might perceive their own intellectual growth more clearly if they understood that the process was dynamic and recursive. In other words, their initial research provided an introductory level of comprehension on a particular topic, but they would later reach a point in their writing where their ideas needed further clarification. By returning to the literature at different stages in their thinking, they could, in turn, renew their writing efforts with greater insight and creativity.

Despite these admirable convictions, we never had time to sit down and create the course until two unfortunate circumstances brought us together. Debbie's car broke down in front of Vicky's house while Vicky was at home recuperating from an illness. Temporarily immobilized, we began to sketch out our perfect course at her kitchen table.

We knew that the writing and research needs of entering science students and those of juniors or seniors were dramatically different. Those needs shaped the initial curriculum of each course. Some problems, such as procrastination or failure to proofread, transcend all levels.

First-year students and, occasionally sophomores, are making the transition from high school reports to integrated research papers. Usually they have not encountered a science research article and have difficulty making distinctions between primary and secondary journal articles (Janick-Buckner 1997) as well as scholarly and non-scholarly sources. Although they have done "online research," their experience is predominantly Internet search engines rather than sophisticated proprietary databases. They may not have done a lab report or one that required literature citations. They have no idea how to read and interpret a scientific paper (Etkina and Ehrenfeld 2000; Nussbaum, Jr. 1991). They have trouble with honest mistakes regarding paraphrasing and plagiarism. Different styles of documentation are incomprehensible. Yet if students wish to enter the sciences, they must stretch intellectually and comprehend these very basic concepts. Even comprehending the sort of work they will be expected to do may be difficult for all but the brightest or best-prepared students.

On the other hand, students who have decided upon a science major or those who plan a pre-med, pre-vet, dental or other health sciences career path may have gotten as far as their junior year and still not have acquired basic information literacy skills (Bruce 2000; Calderhead 2000) or had a challenging research assignment requiring a paper. This group may include students who have succeeded with laboratory or field work, are highly motivated and understand the demands of college assignments. These students know they must acquire skills needed for graduate or professional schools or wish to elevate their research and writing abilities to a new level.

Course Content

Both courses are built around an initial assignment requiring students to write a review paper on a scientific topic of their choosing (Table 1). Assuming motivation based on choice, we use the assignment to teach information-seeking skills including identifying the research question, differentiating between primary and secondary literature (Chisman 1998; Muench 2000), narrowing a topic, using scientific databases, and documenting sources.

Table 1. Comparison of assignments in introductory and advanced courses in scientific writing.

Table 1. Comparison of assignments in introductory and advanced courses in scientific writing.
Introductory course
(Fall 2000)
Advanced course
(Spring 2000)
· Writer's Profile assignment
· Scientific review paper on topic of student's choice
· Preliminary topic statement
· 2-paragraph description of paper aims and scope
· Working bibliography
· Paragraph analysis assignment
· Annotated bibliography
· Article for popular science magazine
· Lab report assignment
· Abstract assignment (group work)
· Choice of scientific case study or scientific biography
· Newspaper article
· Choice of scientific case study, poster presentation, or research proposal/letter of application/resumé assignment
· Final self-assessment of written works and progress as writer

Initial student assignments include a two-paragraph paper outlining their aims and scope for their review paper, followed by a working bibliography of sources. Both groups examine primary science journal article formats, model review papers and documentation styles.

In both courses we expect students to continue their research throughout the semester, posing increasingly sophisticated questions about their topics. They are also expected to achieve expertise in their subject areas and know who are the key research scientists. They must also search the current awareness literature for key papers as they are published.

In addition, students in both courses must address science for a popular audience. Assuming they are still spellbound by their initial topic, they will use it to write a piece for a popular science magazine such as Natural History or Smithsonian. They must restructure their arguments and vocabulary for a different audience. They may also select a different topic, but they must do the research to obtain expertise.

The introductory course is tightly structured since it consists largely of first-year students who are new to the demands of college research and writing. Hence we give two exams to help keep them on top of the material. Also we have more assignments focused on having them learn the basics: using library resources, understanding the components of an abstract, composing coherent paragraphs, doing a lab report. Since few of them have ever thought about how they work as writers, we also introduce a "Writer's Profile" assignment at the beginning of the semester in which they describe their style and habits as writers. Final writing assignments include a case study or scientific biography.

The advanced course takes into account the fact that students will by now have had at least some experience with college writing, if not science writing, and with college science courses. Many will have had laboratory and library research experiences. However, we do not assume they are knowledgeable about information literacy. It is possible to be a junior or senior science major and not have had instruction on information literacy, science literacy or advanced database usage. Nevertheless, we dispense with the "Writer's Profile" assignment and other assignments particular to the introductory level, and add different, more sophisticated assignments such as an annotated bibliography of sources that will eventually be cited in their review paper. The annotations very briefly mention the content of each source, but focus more specifically on why that particular reference is germane to their review. Although the students find this assignment challenging, they quickly learn that it serves as an organization tool for their paper.

The advanced students also rewrite their review paper topic for a popular magazine and for a newspaper. These assignments thus make them delve more deeply into issues of audience and format, which these students are in a better position to appreciate. The introductory students struggle to understand, much less master, the basic review paper format, and even the notion of audience is usually new and strange. Advanced students also have a greater range of choices for assignments during the second half of the semester. These include pieces of writing that are focused on post-graduate situations that many of these students will encounter, such as presenting a poster at a scientific conference (Farber and Penhale 1995); preparing a research proposal; applying for a job as a research assistant, etc. They also may suggest another option. Most assignments require that students return to the literature.

Other basic differences between the courses include the length of the review paper and the minimum number of primary sources. We dispense with examinations in the advanced class. In the introductory class, for simplicity and effective pedagogy, everyone uses the CBE (Council of Biology Editors/Council of Science Editors) documentation style and writes his or her popular magazine article for Natural History or Discover. However, in the advanced class, students must decide themselves on an appropriate journal for their review paper and follow its conventions by using the Instructions for Authors. The more advanced students are better able to accommodate and appreciate the differences in style and format without becoming confused. This is also true for their magazine piece, for which they can select the magazine best suited to their topic (Scientific American, Audubon, American Scientist, etc.)

All students in both classes do an assessment of their research/writing achievements and difficulties that will continue to require additional focus. This assessment is included in the final portfolio submission.

Course Formats

Both courses are seminars structured around writing workshops and portfolio submissions (Slater 1997). Throughout the semester, students come to class with drafts of portions of their work, which are "peer reviewed" in the writing workshops (entire class) or in small groups. This technique not only models real science article submissions, but attempts to train students who are otherwise reticent to have others read their work. We believe the latter practice instills healthy attitudes about writing and a desire to show others what one has written. Portfolios consisting of all writing assignments to date are submitted at mid-term and at the end of the semester. We tell students that the portfolios should demonstrate their individual progress in research and writing through successive drafts of the major assignments.

In addition, we hold individual conferences with each student. As we all know, students arrive at college with different backgrounds and abilities in terms of research and writing skills. The conferences allow students to pose questions they might not ask in class and receive guidance on anything from research problems to basic grammar or documentation formats.

We place high importance on our mutual participation in each class. There is no tag-team teaching. We meet to plan the week's experiences for the students. We each read every assignment and grade them together. Even if one of us takes the lead for a particular class, the other is there to participate and support.

We also expect students to take responsibility for their own learning. Of course, we help them pedagogically with structured self-directed assignments, small group cooperative learning activities (Penhale 1997), and individual conferences. However, they must implement their own time management and meet assignment deadlines. Students must work outside of class to master the vocabulary of their topics as well as do their research and writing.

For the advanced class we have invited guests to address particular concerns. The development officer for the college gives a talk on grant writing; the director of career services talks about scientific vitae and resumes; another member of the Biology Department discusses how to incorporate statistics into scientific writing. If there is a guest speaker on campus who is involved in scientific writing or publishing, we have invited them to have lunch with the class.


These courses depend upon models, just as science itself does. We model research interaction as a team; the students use literature models to write, and the class itself becomes a model of how to create a community to help with writing and research questions. It has been the best forum we have encountered for explaining how and why the library is central to the lives of scientists who must write. Digital information, although extending our abilities in ways exciting and thrilling, has made literature research more complicated and, at times, incomprehensible for practicing science faculty, let alone student novitiates. In our two courses the library is fully integrated with working science projects and professional science publishing. These courses provide opportunities to experience basic and advanced skills at appropriate levels with supportive specialists.

We revise each course annually. Changes in online access and e-publishing dictate significant updates. Also, we modify both courses based on student concerns. We have been privileged to receive excellent suggestions from our students. They love the pragmatic flavor of the courses and the intense engagement with a research experience of their choice. The idea that two faculty members mentor them through the research/writing processes and are available to answer their individual questions is very compelling to students. After experiencing the initial writing workshop with some amount of anxiety, they learn to look forward to the feedback.

We believe our experience can be useful for librarians and teaching faculty who chose to collaborate. Obviously, librarians gain insights into the lengthy research experience encountered by students (Donnelly 2000) and share with teaching faculty concerns about the nature of pedagogy and the problems of undergraduates. These kinds of courses encourage experimentation, because they are not limited by subject content coverage and, to some extent, can function as multiple independent study projects. In fact, although we make extensive use of collaborative learning in groups, we are also adopting new pedagogies, such as case studies ( and problem-based learning (Rangachari 1995; in each iteration of the courses. In addition, these courses have been embraced by science teaching faculty; the introductory course has been offered as a first-year seminar and the advanced course is cross-listed by the Biology Department as a 400-level course for majors.


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