The introductory physics laboratory, which I taught off and on for 25 years, presented me with an excellent way to help students improve their writing by reflecting critically on their work. The setting and the methods I developed might be useful to other instructors.
I structured the laboratory so that students had at least an hour at the end of each session to take the crucial step of writing a one-page report on their work and submitting it to me for review. The page limit was important for two reasons: I wanted my students to identify and focus on what was most important while saving myself the effort of wading through wordy, substance-less prose.
I asked my students to write about the physical motivation behind the lab, only briefly mention their procedures (for I already knew them), summarize important numerical or qualitative results, and express the meaning of their work in one continuous narrative. They understood that I, their only reader, demanded that their writing be clear and concise and that their conclusions be correct or, at least, that they be supported by evidence. I recall students standing by my desk while I quickly ran my pen through needless words and phrases, circled meaningless or problematic sentences, and pointed out verbal lapses and inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their results.
I do not believe that this immediate, personal critique of their writing was burdensome or embarrassing to my students. On the contrary, my students knew what was expected and had ample time to return to their desks or lab benches and make amends. At times, they were sent back several times as I insisted that their report be complete before leaving the lab. For the most part, my students mastered the form in three or four lab sessions.
I recall my own experience in an introductory science lab decades ago. Near the end of the semester, I visited the lab assistant, a graduate student, who was in charge of multiple lab sections. A stack of lab books 3 ft high stood beside his cluttered desk. Not a single lab had yet been graded the whole semester! No doubt the graduate student had important research to do and would work through the reports before final grades were posted. At the time, I was more amused than bothered by this scene. For I knew of nothing better and expected nothing else. But what a wasted opportunity!
Writing helps one focus the mind and better understand one's work. Writing illumines lapses in logic, missing steps in procedures, and absent connections. Writing exposes weaknesses that need to be corrected. Writing requires one to think about what one has done. However, writing loses these powers when there is no responsive reader.
The ability to write a short report that focuses on the most important point or points is a skill with many applications. Only a few of my students became professional physicists. Others became high school science teachers, physicians, social scientists, and engineers. One became an attorney, one a nurse, and one returned to the family farm. However, all of them write reports and memoranda from time to time. While I believe that their experience in physics lab taught them something about the natural world, I also like to think that they learned how to construct a short, written communication that was clear, concise, and correct.
Although I never had enough students to construct a statistically meaningful piece of pedagogical research on the topic, I am convinced that writing in the introductory lab benefited my students. All colleges and universities offer introductory science courses that have a laboratory component. These laboratories are an opportunity to improve student writing and thinking. That opportunity should be seized.