Jennifer Thomson

Shaping the Writing Process with Assignment Design

For this year’s Integrating Writing into STEM teaching grant, Dr. Jennifer Thomson, Associate Professor of Livestock Genomics, focused on a 300-level course at the heart of the Animal Sciences program: Principles of Animal Breeding and Genetics (ANSC 322).

This course is required for all Animal Science majors and an elective for the interdisciplinary Genetics minor. Animal Sciences graduates are expected to critically evaluate technical content to make informed decisions, demonstrate effective written communication to a range of audiences and within collaborative environments, and use scientific principles to solve real-world problems and advocate for science-based solutions.

With these outcomes in mind, Dr. Thomson worked with Writing Center staff on assignment design to find ways to incorporate more significant writing in a course with nearly 60 students.

We collaborated to reduce the number of writing assignments, opting for quality rather than quantity; to select a real-life genre so students could target specific, real-life audiences; to focus more time and attention on writing process; and to make space for writing-specific instruction.

The Writing Center staff facilitated two in-class workshops during the semester, one on how to responsibly incorporate source material and another on revising for clarity and concision. Dr. Thomson also encouraged students to schedule face-to-face sessions with a Writing Center tutor at any point in their process.

Dr. Jennifer Thomson showed us so much about writing in Animal Sciences this year. She reflects on her experience here.

Writing Center: What motivated you to integrate writing into your STEM course?

Jennifer Thomson: I previously had quite a bit of writing in my Animal Genetics course, but the quality was low and grading was painful.

WC: Describe the writing assignment/experience you designed for your class.

JT: I designed assignments around writing an Extension report similar to the Montguides, published by the Montana Experiment Station Extension program. My students wrote three drafts related to different course objectives and then picked one to expand and polish as their term paper.

WC: Why did you decide on that particular writing experience?

JT: It was something that my students were familiar with. There was a well-defined audience. It required them to translate scientific information to a producer or layperson and develop a deeper level of understanding of the material than just summarizing the research for an academic audience.

WC: What have you learned about integrating writing into your curriculum from this experience?

JT: I have learned that the quality of the assignment directly impacts the quality of the writing from the students. In addition, when students can see the value of what they are writing and how it could be used, they are more engaged in the process.

WC: What will you keep and what will you revise for the next iteration of your class?

JT: I will be utilizing this model and assignments in my classroom and course next spring and am working on adapting them to my online course this summer.

WC: What else should faculty know about your experience?

JT: Student writing is of better quality and they are more engaged in the writing process when they see the value of the end product beyond just getting a grade.