Feedback on your Friday writing

BIOS 101 I-10-11       10:30 MWF


            Now that Nicole and I have read about 6000 pages of your writing, it is an appropriate time to provide some collective feedback.  I do try to make remarks on at least some of your papers every week, but as you know, I don’t grade your writing in the same way an English prof might do. Nevertheless, I have noticed a number of things about your work that if corrected, will improve your grades in other classes.  So I encourage you to look through the comments below.


            In general, the writing this year has been very good, given the circumstances under which it is done, and a number of you are working hard to improve week after week.  Hopefully, by the end of the semester you will have acquired some communication skills, intellectual habits, and biological insights that will pay off in the future. Remember also that these writings are primarily an effort to diversify the kinds of graded activities in this class because of my belief that three multiple-choice exams and a multiple-choice final do not produce a scientifically literate citizenry.  So you now have exams, attendance, Mastering Biology, and Friday writings.


(1) The prompts (each student has been assigned a different genus name; most are invertebrates):  The first eight prompts were:


1. 082710 - Where would you have to go, and what would you have to do, in order to collect and keep a species of your genus as a pet?


2. 090310 – As best you can, from the information you’ve obtained so far, describe the life cycle of some species from your genus, including the habitat diversity that the various stages might encounter, the evolutionary adaptations shown by these stages, and the structural changes that occur during this life cycle.


3. 091010 - Do this exercise with one other person.  Pick one group of campus landscape plants other than grass, a group that includes at least three different species, and fill both front and back of this sheet with a DETAILED description of the structure of these plants.


4. 091710 - If you were going to do an undergrad honors thesis on the species in your genus, what would be your main objective, the hypotheses you would test, and the supplies, equipment, and other resources you would need? (Assume you can easily get as many living specimens as required for the research.)


5. 092410 - Give Nicole a page of feedback on her talk [], both positive and negative, and be sure to give her advice on how to win a student paper competition at the next (national) level. (Nicole Searcey, undergrad TA, presented the research to date on Dactylogyrus species’ distributions on fish gills, her honors thesis.)


6. 100110 - What are the ten most unusual and unique vocabulary words you have encountered while studying about your genus, and what have you done to learn what these words mean so that you can use them in daily conversation?


7. 100810 - Finish this letter.  Fill up both sides of the paper.  Watch the YouTube videos posted on Blackboard for 100810, then pick one of these organisms to fill in the blank.  Do not once mention money, health, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion (the five videos were invertebrates from Field Parasitology and the Invertebrate Zoology kelp holdfast).


Dear Mom and Dad (or insert the name(s) of whoever is paying for your college education):


    I’m sure that you are thrilled to hear that after four years of college, I have now been admitted to Harvard Medical School.  However, I’m writing to inform you that instead of going to med school, I’m spending the rest of my life studying _________ because . . . . .


8. 101510 - Interpret this figure on the screen in terms of everything you have learned so far this semester in BIOS 101 (an Eyvind Earle landscape, Gothic Forest).


(2) The marks on your papers: The marks can be translated as follows: brackets, [. . .], usually mean something interesting (phraseology, ideas, observations, etc.).  Circled words and phrases are ones that you should look at and consider correcting, but more importantly, should get into the habit of noticing so that you don’t make such mistakes in the future in other classes.  Check marks mean that I’ve actually read the material.  Stars mean “good work.”  “Good” and “Excellent” at the bottom of your papers are self-explanatory.  If you can’t read my writing, ask me to translate. A vertical line at the top or bottom of the page means that the margins are so wide either Nicole or I probably took off a point or two.  As indicated in the syllabus, I reserve the right to change Nicole’s scores and to award extra points for especially interesting papers.  Out of the 1800+ papers I’ve read this semester, I’ve reduced Nicole’s 3 points to 2 on about 10 of those, and I’ve increased the 3 to a 4 on about 20.  Quite a few of you have received 8 instead of 7 on the follow-ups.


(3) Statistics: The table below provides the writing statistics for this class as of October 20, 2010:


Number of students in class (102010):                                            251

Available writing points as of 101510:                                               70

Number of students with extra credit (70+ points):                 30

Number of students with at least 70 points:                            81

Number of students with at least 60 (86%) points:               184 (= 73% of the class)

Number of students who might qualify for portfolio points:   213


(4) The worst mistakes that some of you make:


1. Wrong form of the verb “to go.”  There is no excuse for any UNL student to ever say, or write, phrases like “have went” or “has went.”  The correct phrases are “have gone” and “has gone;” if you use “went,” use it as a simple past tense (I went, you went, he went, she went, they went).  Similarly, “have wrote” is just incorrect; the correct phrase is either “have written” or just “wrote” (I wrote, you wrote, he wrote, she wrote, they wrote).


2. Not being able to figure out what is a scientific name and what is not, even after you do a search using Google, then using italics incorrectly.  Go back to the pelican slides at the first of the semester when the classification system was explained.  Genus and species names are italicized (underlining means the same as italics; no need to do both).  Genus names are capitalized (e.g., Stylaria); specific epithets are not.  Family, order, class, and phylum names (e.g., Nemertea) are proper nouns wherever they occur and are capitalized but not italicized.  Common nouns (e.g., nemerteans, errant polychaetes) are not italicized, and are not capitalized except as the first words in a sentence.  You can’t always trust the Internet to provide the correct format.  For example, the text editor in YouTube, where you type in titles and descriptions, won’t let you italicize words (although the video editor I use does allow it in titles within the video).


3. Use of the word “research” as a verb.  Technically, such use is not really a mistake, but it’s an annoying habit that makes your writing seem immature and not very scholarly.


4. Failure to pay attention to the correct form of possessives.  The most common example is “this weeks” which should be “this week’s” if you open a sentence with “This week’s prompt . . . etc.”  Pay particular attention to those cases where your word processor automatically “corrects” typing and thus makes a mistake for you.


(5) Your self-assessments: A lot of you are very hard on yourselves.  Remember that these Friday writings are intended to make you think about biological subjects and materials in ways that I cannot accomplish with three multiple choice exams.  They also are intended to make you behave, in a small way, just like professional biologists behave, namely, by writing about various subjects, viewing biological materials from different perspectives, interpreting strange observations, evaluating one another, reflecting on how well certain tasks were performed, etc.  When I “grade” these self-assessments, I always ask: did the student actually do what was assigned, and do it to the extent expected?  If the answer is “yes,” then according to the syllabus contract, you get full credit.  Some of that grading is subjective, however, as indicated in the syllabus, so I do note large writing, large font size, wide margins, etc.  On the other hand, a number of you are starting to focus on the good points of your work, especially whether you actually addressed the prompt to the extent asked.  If you see “good” or “excellent” on your paper, that means you probably got everything there was to get out of the assignment, or at least it seemed that way from your writing, regardless of what you thought about it.


(6) What I am looking for: Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these writing activities is your effort to give me whatever you believe I am looking for.  Thus you express some frustration over not knowing the prompt in advance, not being able to prepare for Friday, not having a specific assignment, etc.  This deference to authority was manifested most strongly in your letters home, in which a very large number of you, if not an overwhelming majority, went straight to the Internet to get information about the video subjects, then used that information as the major part of your letter (some obviously copying and pasting from some web site.)  What I’m looking for is originality, insight, legitimate biology, intellectual maturity, evidence that you’ve thought about the subject, evidence for careful scrutiny of your own work, and evidence that you’re working to improve your communication skills.  When those “looked for” components appear in a paper, they usually leap off the page and the student gets an extra point credit.  Remember, also, that there are as many different ways to get full credit on these exercises are there are people in class.


(7) Boredom: A surprisingly large number of you mention boredom as a factor in your writing, especially boredom with having to write something about your assigned genus.  I don’t know what to do about your boredom and still make these exercises fulfill the educational intent (see (5) above).  I do, however, try to think up challenging prompts, and some of you appreciate that effort.


(8) Writing advice: If possible, do your follow-ups by Wednesday evening, then read over them again a couple of times on Thursday before giving them to me on Friday.  If you give yourself a little bit of time to review your work, after “completing” it, then you’ll pick up a lot of those typos and wrong verbs.  


(9) Take-home message: As a group, you’re doing well in this endeavor (73% of you have at least 86% of the available writing points), so keep working to improve in every aspect, including (perhaps especially) your biological insight.  In the long run, these Friday writings will probably be of far more value to you than memorizing the citric acid cycle.  Thanks for the efforts.  And please be more patient with your genus; the vast majority of you have not even scratched the surface of available information about your group of organisms, many of which are very common Nebraska animals.