Using Rubrics to Teach Science Writing

By Michelle Newstadt & Amanda Godley

 

Most of us, whether we are teachers, parents, or students, have written a lab report for a science class at some point in our lives. Perhaps you remember having to develop a hypothesis (or wondering what a hypothesis was!) or trying to clearly express the sequential steps you took in your experiment. Chances are, you didn’t receive much instruction on how to write up scientific experiments or ideas.  But good science writing – whether in lab reports, scientific explanations, or newspaper articles on black holes – is important for conveying and understanding scientific ideas throughout our lives.

New science standards and assessments (NGSS Lead States, 2013) include writing as a core component, but science writing is still challenging for many teachers and students. The new standards expect students to use writing not only to convey scientific facts clearly, but also to express arguments and to explain scientific ideas. The logic behind most scientific ideas is useful beyond science. Communicating a sound argument backed by analysis and data builds skills that can be used in future jobs and across other subjects. Science writing also helps to support language development (Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry, 2015)

Through our work with preservice teachers as instructors in science education (Michelle) and our work with inservice science teachers through a NSF grant that focused on science writing (Michelle and Amanda), we have found that rubric design can be a great way for teachers to clarify their expectations for science writing for themselves and their students. Since the genre of science writing differs greatly from the writing students typically do in high school (mostly in English Language Arts), a rubric can help teachers articulate and students understand the expectations and conventions of specific types of science writing, such as reporting on scientific data and research, taking notes in scientific notebooks, and using findings to write a position papers

What is a Rubric?

A rubric is an assessment tool that lists criteria (important features) for a piece of writing and describes performance levels for those criteria (Andrade, 2005). It’s important to note that a rubric is more than a checklist or a matrix of scores – good rubrics prioritize the most important features of a piece of writing and precisely define these features at various performance levels, such as “developing,” “proficient” and “advanced.” A well-worded rubric can serve as a guide for students (and family members who may want to help) when they are writing, as an indicator of their development across drafts or a school year, and as a tool for self-reflection and modeling. Some teachers find that rubrics can be too constraining and focus students more on grades than learning. We have found that when rubrics are well-designed and used to introduce and guide an assignment, they are useful for teachers, parents, and students as they learn new skills and concepts.

Lab Report Rubrics

To illustrate the use of a strong science writing rubric in action, we focus this article on lab reports. In a national survey, Wilcox and Jeffery (2014) found that the most common type of science writing assigned in secondary schools was the lab report. Lab reports are formal records of experiments that are typically divided into discrete sections (prediction, data and application, results, analysis).

As we collaborated with science teachers, we learned valuable lessons about developing and refining lab report rubrics in collaboration with students. Many of these lessons learned also extend to rubrics for other types of science writing that encourage students to express new scientific understandings and support scientific claims with evidence and reasoning. Below are suggestions on how to write and use a rubric in the science classroom. A concrete example of a science lab report rubric that illustrates our suggestions can be found here.

Writing a Useful Rubric:

  1. Limit the number of criteria in the rubric. Rubric criteria should focus on the most important scientific concepts and practices you want your students to learn. You can’t cover EVERYTHING! We recommend no more than two items per section of the lab report. We narrowed our lab report rubric down to seven key criteria – one per section of the lab report.
  2. Include practice-oriented and content-oriented items (NGSS Lead States, 2013). The items in the rubric should address scientific practices as well as scientific content to encourage blended knowledge development. For example, clearly explaining the application/significance of an experiment to the general public is an authentic practice of successful scientists.  
  3. Address higher-level thinking. The rubric should include items that extend beyond reporting facts and giving scientific definitions. Rubric items for creating an argument and including scientific reasoning push students to perform higher-level cognitive tasks than simply giving a definition.
  4. Be precise and specific in descriptions. Try to avoid amorphous phrases, such as “clear” or “weak.” We’ve found that when teachers revise their rubrics to include more specific descriptions of their expectations, they often discover key concepts, terms, and practices that they haven’t explicitly taught to their students.
  5. Use disciplinary language, but be sure it is understandable to students. The rubric should reinforce disciplinary literacy by using key scientific terms and concepts (such as unit, observe, variable), but it’s vitally important that these terms have been been taught, explained, and internalized by students.

Using a Rubric in the Classroom:

    1. Discuss the rubric when you introduce the assignment. This step allows students to pinpoint the most important aspects of the assignment before they begin and gives you an opportunity to formatively assess their understanding of key concepts. Students should be encouraged to ask questions and to provide their own definitions/explanations of key terms. Be prepared to refine the language of the rubric based on students’ feedback.
    2. Ask students to practice assessing a sample paper using the rubric. Together, have your class use the rubric to assess the sample paper(s) and discuss where there is discrepancy in scores. Having these discussions upfront helps students understand the criteria and overall use of the rubric.
    3. Use the language and criteria of the rubric during ongoing scaffolding and formative assessment. Let’s say your students are writing a lab report as they conduct an experiment on force and friction. As you circulate to lab groups to see how they are progressing, ask questions or offer support such as, “How could you make your hypothesis more specific by adding proposed causes for your observed effects?” or “Be sure to add units of measurement to your materials and processes sections of your report.”

We have found that rubric creation makes the purpose and goals of a science writing assignment much clearer to students. Rubrics also have helped the teachers we work with realize their own unconscious learning goals and communicate them to students. Thus, carefully designed science writing rubrics can improve instruction and provide students with consistency and scaffolding as they develop science writing.

 

Michelle Newstadt is the Director of Learning and Instruction at Gooru, an education technology non-profit, and an adjunct instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a former middle and high school science teacher and her work focuses on students developing complex STEM knowledge and skills.

Amanda Godley is a professor of English Education at the University of Pittsburgh and a former middle and high school English teacher. Her research focuses on equity, linguistic diversity, and writing instruction in high school English classes.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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