Lessons and Workshops/Science Essay Writing for First-Year Undergraduates

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Science Essay Writing for First-Year Undergraduates


Writing an Argumentative Science Essay

These resources have been designed to help teach students how to write a well-structured argumentative science essay (approximately 1,250 words) over the course of a term. They will take part in four interactive in-class activity sessions (intended to last 50 – 60 min each) that each focus on a different, critical theme in writing essays, and which are designed to supplement pre-class homework readings and short activities.

Student essays can be written to address any brief. An example is:

Identify a current controversy in science that interests you. State your opinion, and present the evidence that justifies your position.

The four in-class activity sessions will help students develop their essays (see Table 1).

Table 1: The four topics that will be covered in in-class activity sessions will help students develop their essays over the term. ‘PRE’ classes refer to readings and very short activities that must be completed before they come to the in-class sessions.

Class Topic
Good Essay Structure
(thesis and development statements, main body, conclusion)
IN 1
Using Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism
(primary, secondary and tertiary sources, citing/referencing)
IN 2
Effective Paragraphing
(paragraph structure, topic sentences, transitions)
IN 3
Peer Review
(giving and using feedback to improve written work)
IN 4
Science Essay Writing Framework.jpg

Figure 1. Essay Writing Framework

Essay Structure

Pre-Class Activity

The Fundamental Components of a Good Essay Structure

A good essay requires a good structure; it needs to be clear and concise, and it needs to integrate ‘signposts’ throughout so that a reader is able to follow the logical argument that the author is making. There is no room for an author’s thoughts to wander away from the purpose of the essay, because such misdirection will lead to the reader becoming confused. To stop this confusion arising, various writing and reading conventions have developed over time. One of these conventions is the internal structure of an academic essay.

This internal structure resembles an ‘ɪ’ shape. The top horizontal bar represents the thesis, or part of the essay that will comprise a thesis statement and one or more development statements. The thesis statement is the claim of the argument presented in the essay. Without this, the reader would not know what to expect the rest of the essay to develop. The development statement(s) are also crucial as they tells a reader which points will be used to support the argument, and also which order they will be presented in. If some of these points are not listed – or presented in a different order to the one stated – the reader might fail to understand the author’s intent, or even discount the steps used to support the argument.

The vertical bar of the ‘ɪ’ represents the main body of the essay, where each of the points presented in the development part of the thesis should be presented and discussed. Examples and references (citations) are generally included in these paragraphs, but it is important to note that each paragraph should contain only one main idea with examples or references that justify it. This main idea should be presented in a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph; these topic sentences act as signposts throughout the main body of the essay.

The bottom horizontal bar of the ‘ɪ’ represents the summary/conclusion of the essay. Here the thesis (main claim) and pieces of supporting evidence (different points that developed the argument) are restated briefly to show the reader why/how everything fits together. No new information should be added to the essay at this point.

Essay Writing.jpg Thesis statement and development statement(s): The central argument is stated, along with the points used to develop it, in the order that they will be discussed. All writing in the essay is focused on supporting this main, central argument.

Main Body: Shows the reader how the writer is supporting the central argument by discussing the points stated in the thesis and development statement(s). The topic sentence of each paragraph will be related to a point stated in the thesis and development statements. The points must be discussed in the order in which they were written in the thesis and development statements.

Conclusion – Summarizes the entire argument. May suggest new avenues for enquiry, but does not include new material.

** Materials adapted from those provided by Joanne Nakonechny, UBC Skylight **

Thesis and Development Statements Recap:

How to write a good thesis statement

Your defining sentence/sentences must clearly state the main idea of your writing. You must include the subject you will discuss and the points that you will make about that subject in the order in which you will write about them.

The value of development statements

These list the different reasons (which will be accompanied with evidence) that the writer is going to use to support his/her claim. These narrowed or more focused points provide the steps of the argument to establish the validity of the thesis statement.

Note that if these reasons are too broad, the essay will be vague, because not all aspects of them can be addressed.

Vague development example:

“Science can solve starvation, disease and crime.”

Stronger development example:

“Science, through genetically modified foods and better crop fertilizers, can contribute to solving starvation.”

Note that this second example provides the reader with information about the specific steps the writer is going to use to support the thesis that science can contribute to solving starvation; genetically modified foods and better crop fertilizers are the reasons that the author is going to expand on to support his/her claim that science can contribute to solving starvation.

Activity 1 (complete before the in-class session)

Throughout these classes, you will develop an argumentative essay in which you state a clear thesis, make claims and supply reasons and evidence to support these reasons, and write a sound conclusion. To begin with, you must:

  1. Identify a current controversy in science that interests you.
  2. State your opinion and some of the reasons that you can use as evidence to support your position.
  3. Come to class prepared to speak about these with a partner.

In-Class Activity

The Fundamentals of a Good Essay Structure [In-Class Session]

Activity 1 (5 minutes)

Produce short written responses that show:

  1. One idea in the reading that you already use in your essay writing
  2. One idea in the reading that you will now use in your essay writing

Activity 2 (10 minutes)

Take part in a class discussion about the structure that a good essay should take. Specifically, think about and discuss:

#What is a thesis statement? #What are development statements? How are they linked to the thesis statement? #What is the purpose of these parts of an essay? #How should the main body of an essay be organized? #What is a topic sentence? Is it the same as a development statement? #What sort of information should appear in the conclusion to an essay?

Activity 3 (10 minutes)

As a general rule, thesis statements in many essays are too general, which means it is not possible for the author to fully address them with reasons and evidence in his/her writing. Stronger thesis statements should provide narrowed or more focused points.

Rank the following four thesis statements (from best to worst) and justify your decisions:

A) Recreating deadly viruses to study their evolution has more downsides than upsides.
B) Recreating deadly viruses to study their evolution can bring many benefits by helping us better understand how rapidly they change and how we can better design vaccines in outbreak situations.<br?
C) Recreating deadly viruses to study their evolution comes with many risks, seeing as these viruses can mutate into more deadly forms.
D) Recreating deadly viruses to study their evolution brings both downsides and upsides but we need to study how quickly they mutate and how dangerous they are.

Activity 4 (15 minutes)

In the homework, you were asked to identify a current controversy in science that interests you, and to state your opinion and think of some of the reasons that you could use to support your position.

Choose a partner and briefly speak to them about this (you should both aim to have spoken about your interests and opinions within five minutes).

Now, in the next five minutes, try to write a thesis statement and one or more development statements that you will use to begin your argumentative essay.

And, in the last five minutes, talk to your partner about your thesis statement and development statement(s) and see if you can help each other improve them.

Hint: Are your statements too broad/vague, and do they list enough reasons that you will use to support the main claim made in the thesis statement. Re-writing a thesis statement can take some time, but revision is an important part of the writing process. Try to settle on a good thesis and development statement by the next class but don’t rush things – in many ways, these are the most important parts of an essay.

Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism

Pre-Class Activity

Searching the Literature and Including Citations and References

Effective Searching

For tips on how to search the literature effectively, to find useful material that could support the development of your essay, and on how to integrate these into your essay, we advise you to read our guides here and here.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Before coming to class, we also ask you to read the following information about plagiarism, so that you know how to identify the different types – and, more importantly, avoid them in your own writing; after all, it is your responsibility to know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

To start, review the information in this website link: http://help.library.ubc.ca/planning-your-research/academic-integrity-plagiarism/, before reading more at this one: http://learningcommons.ubc.ca/resource-guides/avoiding-plagiarism/

Activity 1

You should come to class with an idea about how to avoid each of the three types of plagiarism noted here, ready to participate in a discussion about the main issues. Make some brief notes if you feel they will help you.

Identifying Different Types of Sources

Read the following website link to learn how to differentiate between different types of sources and evaluate how appropriate and useful they are for your essay here: http://help.library.ubc.ca/evaluating-and-citing-sources/evaluating-information-sources/ Make sure you read the information about ‘Primary Sources’ and the related link to ‘Learn about finding…’.

You are also encouraged to watch the following Grammar Squirrel videos to help you solidify these concepts:

  1. Sources
  2. Citing Sources in Science Writing

Activity 2

Make some brief notes on the main differences between primary, secondary and tertiary resources and come to class ready to discuss these.

Searching the Literature

To help you start gathering material for your essay, you should start searching for appropriate literature to support your thesis and the reasons that you are going to develop in the main body of your writing. For a guide on how best to do this, see here.

Activity 3

Before class, find one example of each of primary, secondary and tertiary sources that relate to your essay. On a single sheet of paper, for each resource, write notes on the following, and bring these with you to the in-class session.

  • Is this a primary, secondary or tertiary source? Why?
  • How might you use this resource in your essay?

In-Class Activity

Searching the Literature and Including Citations and References

For your homework, you were asked to review information about the three main types of plagiarism, and how these can be avoided. You were also asked to read information and watch videos about identifying different types of sources.

Activity 1 (10 minutes)

Take part in a discussion with your classmates and instructor(s) about the three main types of plagiarism. What are they? Have you ever committed any of these before without realizing? How can you avoid plagiarism in your essays?

Activity 2 (15 minutes)

First, take part in a brief discussion with your classmates and instructor(s) about the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Why are primary sources usually preferred for use in essays and scholarly writing? Are any tertiary sources useful or reliable? Why/why not?

Second, form groups of 4-6 people, and take turns to fill out a table of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources that you each found to support the development of your essays.

When filling out the second column (How might you use this?), think about how the information contained in this source applies to the scientific controversy that you are writing about; specifically, try to outline how you could use this source to provide a reason and evidence to support the thesis of your argument. You should explain this to your classmates as you fill in the table.

Source Example How might you use this?

Activity 3 (10 minutes)

Take part in a discussion with all of your classmates and instructor(s) about the sources that you found. Are they suitable for inclusion in your essays? Why/why not? How are you going to find more sources to help add content depth to your essays?

Activity 4 (10 minutes)

Work with a partner to try to paraphrase some of the information in one of your sources (preferably your primary source); remember the video you watched before class about integrating sources in your work – it is important in science essays to reword what has been written in a source and then attribute the idea to the author(s) of that source.

For now, try to just reword the key information so that it could be included in the main body of your essay. For a more complete guide to attributing the information to the author(s) of the source from which it came, please read the following if you have not already done so: Integrating and Citing Sources.

It is important that you learn the correct format for including citations in your essay, and for compiling the references list at the end.


Pre-Class Activity

Paragraph Structure, Topic Sentences and Transitions

Good essays are easy to read and follow a logical development. Structuring the content of your essay in an organized way is thus critical to making sure your reader(s) understand the argument you are making. Even the most content-rich essay can be misinterpreted if it is not structured properly.

A good structure relies upon effective paragraphing. You should try to only include one main content point per paragraph, even if this means some paragraphs are much smaller than others; the key when writing an essay that defends a thesis statement is to use one paragraph for each reason that you present to provide support for your main claim.

Once you have split your essay into discrete paragraphs, you should add in topic sentences to begin each one; these sentences should act as signposts for your reader(s), telling them clearly and succinctly what they can expect to read about in the following paragraph. You can think of them as mini development statements that map the logical development of your essay from paragraph to paragraph.

Finally, you should add in transitions (little words and phrases) that link each sentence together smoothly and make everything easy to read. Words such as ‘initially’, ‘secondly’, ‘however’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘lastly,’ and phrases such as ‘as a result’, ‘on the other hand’ and ‘in addition’ are typical examples that you probably already use on a day-to-day basis.

For more information on effective paragraphing, we advise you to read the following student guide before coming to class: Organizing

Activity 1

Think about the different elements that make a piece of writing effective, and come to class prepared to discuss some of these.

Activity 2

Also, make sure that you bring at least two primary sources that you have found to use in your essay; you will work on writing paragraphs about these with a partner in class.

In-Class Activity

Paragraph Structure, Topic Sentences and Transitions

To prepare you for this class, you should have read the student guide about organizing your writing (how to paragraph effectively). Remember that you must present your essay in a logical way if it is to be interpreted as you mean it to be by your reader(s). A big part of this is invested in writing paragraphs that each present one main idea.

Activity 1 (10 minutes)

Take part in a class discussion by thinking about the following question: “What makes a good piece of writing?” Hint: Think of as many things as possible (not just those that relate to paragraphing, and structure).

Your instructor will brainstorm the class ideas on the blackboard/whiteboard, but you should do the same so that you can refer to your notes later.

Activity 2 (25 minutes)

Take out the sources that you brought with you (which relate to the current scientific controversy that you are going to discuss in your essay); you should have brought at least two, and these should preferably be primary sources.

Take 10 minutes to write a paragraph about each one so that it could fit into the essay you are writing. Use the brainstorm/notes you took from Activity 1 to help guide your writing. Do not worry too much about writing long paragraphs at this point, but try to make sure you only talk in depth about the one main point of the source you are using in each one.

In the remaining five minutes, try to write a topic sentence for each paragraph; remember that this should act as a mini development statement (or a signpost) that tells a reader what they can expect to read about in the coming paragraph. Lastly, try to add some transition words/phrases to link all the sentences smoothly together.

Make sure you include a citation for your sources (at least one per paragraph)

Activity 3 (15 minutes)

Swap your writing with a partner, and read each other’s work. In the first 10 minutes, make notes on their writing (being constructive) that will help them improve it. Some things to focus on include:

  1. Is there only one main point per paragraph?
  2. Does each topic sentence serve as a good signpost? Is it clear from this one sentence alone what the author is going to talk about in that paragraph?
  3. Does each sentence transition smoothly into the next one?
  4. Are any of the transition words/phrases confusing?
  5. Does the writing follow a logical path?
  6. Are there any confusing terms used (overly complex words, or science jargon)?
  7. Are the citations formatted correctly?

For the last five minutes, you should take your piece of writing back and begin to improve it based on the feedback your partner gave you. If you do not finish all of these improvements by the end of class, you should complete them as homework; you should try to complete a first draft of your essay soon after this class anyway.

Peer Review

Pre-Class Activity

The Importance of Peer Review

When a researcher, or team of researchers, finishes a stage of work, they usually write a paper presenting their methods, findings and conclusions. They then send the paper to a scientific journal to be considered for publication. If the journal’s editor thinks it is suitable for their journal he/she will send the paper to other scientists, who research and publish in the same field and ask them to:

  1. Comment on its validity – are the research results credible; is the design and methodology appropriate?
  2. Judge the significance – is it an important finding?
  3. Determine its originality – are the results new? Does the paper refer properly to work performed by others?
  4. Give an opinion as to whether the paper should be published, improved or rejected (usually to be submitted elsewhere).

This process is called peer review, and it is incredibly important in making sure that only high-quality written work appears in the literature, but it also allows authors to improve their original work based on the feedback of others.

Did you know?

There are around 21,000 scholarly and scientific journals that use the peer-review system. A high proportion of these are scientific, technical or medical journals, which together publish over 1,000,000 research papers each year.

By the way...

Peer review is also used to assess scientists’ applications for research funds. Funding bodies, such as medical research charities, seek expert advice on a scientist’s proposal before agreeing to pay for it. Peer review in this instance is used to judge which applications have the best potential to help an organization achieve its objectives.

Peer Review – Your Essay

You are not reporting the results of experiments in a journal article or applying for funding, but are writing an essay about a current controversy in science that interests you.

The process of peer review that you will undertake is very similar, however; by hearing what your peers think about your work before you hand it in, you should gain a valuable insight into how they interpret it, and where they think it can be improved. If you make suggested improvements, it is very likely that it will receive a higher grade when you hand it to your instructors.

You already have some experience of the peer-review system, because you provided feedback on a partner’s two paragraphs in the last class, and had them provide you with feedback on your own writing.

Activity 1

For some further tips on how to give effective feedback, make sure you read the following guide before coming to class: How to Give and Receive Effective Feedback, and arrive ready to participate in a discussion about peer review and its importance.

Activity 2

Make sure you also bring a draft of your essay to class; you will be working with a partner to provide feedback on these essays.

In-Class Activity

The Importance of Peer Review

Peer review ensures that only high-quality work appears in the science literature; it also allows a writer to improve his/her work based on feedback provided by someone within his/her field. Today you will get the chance to provide constructive feedback on someone else’s essay, while having them comment on yours. This exchange should help you improve your work greatly.

Activity 1 (10 minutes)

Take part in a class discussion about peer review and its importance. Some specific questions to think about include:

  1. What would happen if scientists didn't have their work reviewed by their peers?
  2. Are they any downsides? What happens if there is a disagreement?
  3. What sort of feedback is the best to give/receive?

Activity 2 (30 minutes)

Choose a partner (preferably someone you haven’t worked with before) and swap your essay drafts. First of all, read through their essay in its entirety before going back and reading it in smaller chunks. Comment on it by annotating the work where you are confused, or where you think improvements can be made. Rather than editing it, suggest other options that would lead to improvements (e.g. don’t make the improvements yourself).

Pay extra attention to the most important elements that dictate whether an essay has a good structure and reads well:

  1. Are the thesis and development statements clear? Are they too narrow or too broad?
  2. Is the work split up into paragraphs that focus on one main point each?
  3. Does the essay follow a logical path of development? Do the reasons that are supplied to support the original thesis follow the order that they were set out in the original development statement(s)?
  4. Are topic sentences used effectively so that someone who was lost (just started reading halfway through) would understand the route being taken (what the author was going to elaborate on in a given paragraph)?
  5. Are transition words and phrases used effectively so that each sentence transitions smoothly into the next one?
  6. Is the conclusion clear and concise? Does the author introduce any new material here that is confusing in any way?
  7. Is the essay interesting? Do you feel you have learned something new? Do you agree with the thesis statement now that you have read the whole essay (have you been convinced by the author’s argument)?

Activity 3 (10 minutes)

Read through the comments you have received from your partner and make sure you understand them all. Once you are satisfied that you do, spend the remaining time making improvements based on their feedback. You will not be able to finish all of these in class, but you can take the feedback away with you and use it to improve your essay before handing it in.