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Departmental Programs

Biology Department Rhetoric Program

Updated October 8, 2014.

The Biology Department’s Rhetoric Program is integral to its mission: “…to respond to our Creator’s call to investigate the diversity, organization, and functioning of the living world and to provide a Christian model for its study, care, and keeping” (Biology Department Mission Statement, 2005). One cannot investigate, study, care for, and keep the living world by one’s self; these are communal acts. Moreover, as a communal enterprise biology requires competency in scientific communication and rhetoric – writing and speaking in ways that inform, critique, and persuade. This is one of the celebrated hallmarks of a solid Calvin Biology education.

Our Rhetoric Program must guide students in our major programs from a typically meager grasp of biological communication to a professional level of rhetorical competency. Incoming students often have the perception that biological competency is essentially about mastery of scientific facts. Our task at the introductory level, then, is to help students learn that biological concepts are based on conceptual models, which in turn are based on interpretations of experimental data. Furthermore, these models and interpretations are based on underlying patterns of thinking and communicating. To comprehend the world of biology, scholars must master disciplinary conventions in visual, written, and oral rhetoric. Indeed, one cannot attain success in biology without becoming a careful reader and a critical thinker, skills a well-crafted writing program can develop (Quitadamo, Ian J., and Martha J. Kurtz. Learning to improve: Using writing to increase critical thinking performance in general education biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education 6 (2007): 140-154.). However, biological competency does not end at the disciplinary boundaries. Especially within the context of Christian liberal arts, it is also crucial to examine contemporary biological questions through the lens of other disciplines.  In our advanced courses, students need to exercise critical engagement in biology in ways that draw upon Calvin’s core courses and core Christian virtues. Biological communication at this level needs to reflect mastery of interdisciplinary critical thinking, analysis, and literary research skills – dealing deftly with a range of perspectives within the discipline and beyond. Thus, the goal of our Rhetoric Program is to hone students’ critical thinking so that they can contribute insightfully both to intra-disciplinary thinking and to wider conversations about contemporary biological issues.

I.    Compliance with the goals of the College Academic Rhetoric Program

  1. Frequency. Writing is a weekly habit in the Biology curriculum. At the introductory level, writing assignments focus on the learning process via learning logs (journals) or learning self-evaluations. These are meant to foster the type of reflective thinking and self-directed learning that characterize expert learners. Every test features at least one essay requiring higher-order thinking skills. Introductory courses also introduce students to the elements of biological research papers and to the principles and practices of visual and written rhetoric. Especially in laboratories, students learn the fine points of graphical representation of data, of figure legends, and of results summaries as tools of scientific communication. In our sophomore-level research course, students combine these rhetorical, technical, and literary research skills (using databases, critically reading papers) in writing a short research paper.

    In all of our 300-level courses students are expected to engage in some type of technical reflective, review, and/or research writing. Students also keep laboratory/field notebooks, the backbone of scientific record-keeping and integrity. These experiences culminate in the writing of a full research paper at the end of a semester-long project in one of our investigatory courses and in the writing of a full position paper in one of our senior capstone courses; both sets of courses typically involve oral presentation of the papers as well.

  2. Feedback. The Biology curriculum emphasizes feedback in the learning process. Formative and summative evaluations are vital parts of the learning cycle in our introductory courses. Formative assessments can combine individual and collaborative learning in the practice of evaluating written and oral rhetoric. Such feedback informs students and instructors of problem areas with conceptual comprehension. Summative assessments provide feedback on students’ mastery of the material (and force them to keep pace in their studies). Most instructors in our introductory courses offer students partial credit for revisions of some answers on tests. In this way, students are able to take advantage even of summative assessments as a form of corrective feedback.

    Feedback also occurs in a variety of other forms. When grading student writing assignments, instructors are encouraged to provide revision-oriented “minimal marking” comments, rather than just editing-oriented comments (Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001, p. 69f). Peer review plays an important role in the formal papers assigned in upper-level courses.  Rubrics are employed both in the peer-review process to facilitate revision and in the final grading by the instructor. Evaluation of research notebooks, which instructors are encouraged to do periodically throughout the course, also employs a rubric and “minimal marking” comments.

  3. Variety. Writing in biology takes multiple forms: expository essays, annotated bibliographies, technical reviews, research notebooks, research papers, white papers (i.e., short papers that emphasize the author’s rationale), and position papers (i.e., more extensive papers that critique various points of view). Audiences for these papers vary from general (the public, church groups, policy-makers, stakeholders, professions in biology-related disciplines, etc.) to very specific – perhaps just a handful of researchers who are collaborating on a project.  Likewise, there are different forums for oral presentations. By implication, then, biology students need to be competent in a wide array of written and oral communication venues in their associated technologies. The Biology curriculum emphasizes the fundamentals of written, visual, and oral rhetoric in its introductory courses, in order to prepare students to excel in a variety of scientific communication scenarios in our advanced courses. Finally, sub-disciplinary reading and writing helps to entice students to explore biology-related career tracks outside academia. 

II.   Integration throughout the major curriculum

Appendix A makes apparent the developmental progression of learning skills and communication skills in the Biology curriculum. From their very first introductory course to their capstone course, students in our major programs are engaging in formative, expository, and reflective writing. Short, frequent writing assignments and small group discussions in Biology 123, 195, and 224-225 emphasize mastery of key rhetorical and technical components: asking good questions; designing, conducting, and interpreting experiments; evaluating answers; listening to other perspectives; and making good logical arguments. In Biology 250 students are taught how to read original research papers and use database tools for literary research. Then they combine these skills with the previously-mastered rhetorical and technical components to write a short, high-quality research paper. In this way the elements of research, writing, and rhetoric taught in our introductory courses become the foundation for writing in our upper-level courses.

Building on the foundational writing skills, upper-level courses afford students opportunities to master a variety of genres of biology-related communication. Rubrics are available or in development for evaluating each type of writing in the context summarized below.

  1. Annotated bibliographies and other types of literature summaries. These are excellent tools for introducing the novice to an area of current research or to a range of perspectives on a biology-related topic in contemporary society. “Getting into the literature” in this way acquaints students with authoritative journals and researchers in a given field. By writing annotated bibliographies students learn how to research carefully, write concisely, and use standard documentation (typically modeled after the style used in a leading biological journal). In our Biology curriculum, this form of writing builds upon the technical components taught in our introductory courses and helps students to briefly evaluate different perspectives from the literature. For this reason, the writing of annotated bibliographies is often assigned during the early stages of research in investigative and capstone courses.

  2. Technical/critical review papers and grant proposals. Reviews may focus on state-of-the-art methodologies and their use to answer research questions or on our current understanding of a biological process or phenomenon. (Grant proposals typically combine both aspects.) Proposals and review papers may be extensive or very brief.  In addition to the research skills needed for writing annotated bibliographies, to write a good review or proposal students need to employ explanatory/rhetorical strategies. Critical reviews require that students do some of their own assessment of the topic as well. Thus, a strong conceptual grasp of the material is a prerequisite.  Visual models and diagrams are often invaluable too. For these reasons, instructors often assign reviews in 300-level (especially for students doing honors work) and investigative courses. Reviews are often communicated to the class via “journal club” discussions or PowerPoint presentations.

  3. Research notebooks and lab reports (short communications). Formal lab reports have been a mainstay in many introductory and advanced courses. Akin to a short communication paper, lab reports help students become more effective in interpreting and communicating the results of a particular experiment as it pertains to a larger body of knowledge. However, more instructors are now shifting towards research notebooks instead. Notebooks are written as detailed records of the entire experiment: the purpose, design, methodological steps, observations, results, and conclusions. As they are the backbone of scientific integrity, notebooks must be thorough, honest records that show mistakes and corrections. Yet, because they are generally used as references by others on the research team, they must be readable and well-organized. Indeed, these attributes are crucial for effective trouble-shooting as well. Occasionally, notebooks become legal documents when questions of intellectual property are raised (such as when a patent application is filed or when fraud is alleged). Because of their prominence in the profession and because their purpose is quite different from other forms of scientific writing, we are encouraging their adoption in more 300-level and investigations courses.

  4. Full research papers. Research papers are the culmination of the process of experimentation, and thereby are an essential communal component in science. While students gain some experience with elements of full research papers in their introductory courses, they do not generate a cohesive body of data dealing with one phenomenon. Even in Biology 250 (a required course that introduces students to the research process), the data set is minimal and capable of supporting only a very small research paper, akin to a “short communication.” The logical place, then, for assigning full research papers is in the investigations courses where each student conducts a semester-long project. These papers are expected to conform to the norms and style of manuscripts published in peer-reviewed journals, and as such, should themselves be subject to peer-review prior to submitting the final draft. In this way student gain an understanding not only of what it takes to prepare a publication-quality manuscript, but also an inkling of the scrutiny manuscripts receive prior to publication.

  5. Persuasive essays, white papers, and position papers. The intent of this genre of biological literature is to inform and persuade. Good argumentation skills are essential, as is knowing and connecting with one’s audience. White papers (short papers emphasizing the author’s rationale) and position papers (critical analyses of various stakeholder perspectives), being the most sophisticated of the genre, typically address topics of interest to different sub-disciplinary audiences or to professional and general audiences. They require careful research and intellectual sophistication, as different audiences have different expectations of what makes for appropriate visual rhetoric and what makes for particularly persuasive arguments – or not. Capstone courses and other upper-level courses that explore contentious issues in biology make effective use of this type of writing assignment, often drawing upon college core courses and core virtues as well. Students may be expected to communicate their position to the class via a PowerPoint presentation.

  6. PowerPoint and poster presentations. These types of presentations are extremely popular at scientific conferences, and thus it is fitting that students master these forms of communication. Formats for such presentations can vary, depending on the nature of the audience.  However, in all cases these must be concise. They should contain key elements of a research paper: introduction, experimental design, data, interpretations, and conclusions. Posters and slides should contain a minimal amount of wording, be organized in a logical flow, and demonstrate effective use of visual and written rhetoric. Posters in particular should “tell the story” so that readers can comprehend it even if the author is not present. Poster presentations are expected of summer research students enrolled in Biology 399, and are occasionally employed in other research scenarios as well. PowerPoint presentations are expected of students at the end of most investigations courses.

III. Consideration of the role of departmental offerings in the core

The Biology Department offers three non-majors courses that fulfill the Living World core: Biology 111, 112, and 115. Biology 123 is a Living World core course in the major programs offered by our department, but it is also available to non-majors. These courses typically require writing in the form of essays, exploratory writing, and poster or PowerPoint presentations. The role of these assignments is to give students some experience with scientific reasoning, scientific rhetoric (especially visual rhetoric), and critical thinking. 

Biology 364 (intended for the International Development Studies program) satisfies the Global/Historical Studies core. This course requires reflective and persuasive writing on a variety of sustainability subjects. Reflective writing in this course is typically comprised of essays, journals, and/or critical reviews. Essays and white papers comprise the persuasive writing component. In addition to exhibiting basic competence in scientific rhetoric and communication, both types of writing should involve critical analyses of biological research.

IV. Faculty awareness and development. 

  1. A descriptive summary of the Biology Rhetoric Program will be posted on the department’s website and included in the Student Manual for all majors in the department.

  2. The full Rhetoric Program document will be handed out to new faculty members. It will be the Rhetoric Program liaison’s responsibility to review this document with them, and encourage their input regarding any clarifications, revisions, or improvements.

  3. The Rhetoric Program liaison will offer assistance to Biology faculty in designing problem-based writing assignments and other tasks that spur critical thinking (Bean, pp. 73-214) and in evaluating student writing with an eye towards coaching the writing process (Bean, pp. 217-265). This can be conducted one-on-one or via departmental colloquia.

  4. Each year the Biology Department chair will convene a departmental colloquium at which the Biology Assessment Committee will review our Rhetoric Program assessment data and open the floor for dialogue regarding the program.

V.  Assessment

The Rhetoric Program liaison and the Biology Assessment Committee will convene a senior panel, initially every other year, and develop an alumni survey (emailed to a subset of recent alumni) to be administered in alternate years.  Together with the assessment data from the ETS’s Biology Major Field Test, these senior panels and alumni surveys will inform the committee’s periodic review of the Biology Rhetoric Program, thereby assisting in strategic planning.

Appendix A: Learning & Communication Skills in the New Biology Curriculum

Course Learning/Vocational Skills Communication Skills

Biol 123 – Challenges in Contemporary Biology
(4 sem hrs)

Learning how to learn

Evaluating information

Learning log

Critical analysis (asking questions, evaluating answers)
Biol 224 – Cellular & Genetic Systems
(4 sem hrs)

Mastering biological concepts


Critical thinking

Elements of a research paper:

  • Figures & tables
  • Methods & Results sections
  • Intro & Discussion sections

Reflection papers

Biol 225 – Ecological Systems & Evolution
(4 sem hrs)
Biol 250 – Biological Inquiry
(3 sem hrs)

Scientific & literary research skills



Technical writing skills (short research paper)
Biol 195 – Soph Seminar
(1 sem hr)

Critical thinking

Career exploration

Scientific communication (listening & discussing)
Biol 295 - Jr/Sr Seminar
(0 sem hrs)
Critical thinking Scientific communication (critical analysis)
Biol 3XX
(11-12 sem hrs total)

Integrative & in-depth courses

Place-based experiences

Scientific communication (written & oral rhetoric - see Section II)
Biol 35X/385/390/399
(4 sem hrs)
Advanced research skills Scientific review & research papers; oral presentations
Biol 394/395/396
(3 sem hrs)

Integrative studies re-evaluating issues raised in Biol 123

Career planning

Position paper & oral presentation