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Department Programs

Chemistry & Biochemistry Writing Program

A central focus of our mission in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is to “engage[e] students in becoming responsible Christians equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and virtues that will allow them to be of service in scientific professions.”1 Effective written, oral, and visual communication skills are a vital aspect of such service. Indeed, chemists engage in a wide variety of types of communication, ranging from informal laboratory notebooks and research presentations which are read and heard only by one’s immediate colleagues, to formal research papers and presentations, grant proposals, patents and books that have wider audiences. Some chemists communicate to a broader public audience by publishing review articles, expository essays, or even popular science articles and books.

To learn to communicate effectively, our students must receive ample instruction in written, oral, and visual rhetoric. In addition, they need to be adequately trained in literary research skills. Our department has a long history of emphasizing rhetorical skills in our curriculum.  We continue that emphasis through this new Writing Program, with additional emphasis on improving feedback from instructors to students, and instruction in literary research skills.

This document summarizes current practice in our department, and outlines methods to assess the program and to improve it by increasing feedback. The program’s compliance with the main goals of the Calvin College Academic Writing Program – frequency, feedback, and variety in the instruction of rhetoric –is addressed first. Then, the variety of rhetorical assignments given to majors, minors, and non-majors in our program is briefly summarized. Finally, goals for faculty awareness and assessment of the Writing Program are described.

I.  Compliance with the Goals of the College Academic Writing Program

Frequency. Rhetorical abilities are acquired and perfected through regular practice; therefore, we offer students in our program many opportunities to hone their skills. Throughout the program, students write informal reports almost weekly in each of their laboratory courses. Students write one or two formal reports each semester after the second year, and all 300-level courses require at least one oral presentation per semester and/or some type of formal writing.

Feedback. Professors are encouraged to provide individual feedback on writing assignments and oral presentations. This was a weak point in our prior program; students rarely had the opportunity to respond to feedback by re-submitting papers, and feedback was often given at the end of the semester when students were least likely to use it effectively. This issue is addressed and remedied in our current program. We will implement a systematic process by which students receive ample feedback on their first formal writing project in the program, and faculty will be reminded and encouraged by the department’s Writing Program Liaison to provide more feedback on assignments given later in the program. 

Variety. A variety of different types of writing, including literature reviews, proposals, and expository essays, are introduced to department majors and minors in their 3rd and 4th years. Students are also given opportunities to practice their oral and visual rhetorical skills during the last half of the program. Research literacy is also emphasized in many these upper-level assignments.

II.  Integration of Rhetoric Instruction Throughout the Major Curriculum

Laboratory reports. Students are introduced to the written lab report during their first semester of General Chemistry, where they are required to write informal reports that are turned in before they leave lab. These reports are graded by the laboratory assistant, who may provide some feedback regarding the quality of student writing.  Informal lab reports are required almost weekly in all subsequent lab courses. As students progress in the program, the requirements for informal lab reports become more rigorous, and feedback and assessment is provided by the laboratory instructor rather than by the teaching assistant.

Formal lab reports are introduced in the second year of the program during the Organic Chemistry laboratory. Toward the end of the two-course sequence, students write a formal lab report in the format of a published journal article. This is their first introduction to professional-style writing, and we aim to provide more instruction and feedback than is currently offered at this point. Students will be required to turn in rough drafts of portions of their reports for instructor feedback at least twice during the writing process. They will also be encouraged to edit their reports to address the issues highlighted by instructors before they turn in the final draft. Students who are struggling with this type of formal writing will be referred to the Rhetoric Center for additional assistance.

Students continue to write one or two formal reports per semester in subsequent years, each time receiving feedback and assessment from the course instructor. Substantial instruction in writing formal lab reports is given in Chem 304 or 317 (all majors and minors pass through one of these courses), and in those courses students are required to submit an initial draft of their first formal report for extensive instructor feedback prior to their final draft. In Chem 317, students are required to incorporate information from the primary literature into their formal reports. The instructor demonstrates for them how to obtain this information by searching literature databases such as SciFinder Scholar. Furthermore, majors who elect to obtain an ACS (American Chemical Society) certified degree, or to earn an honors degree, enroll in Chem 395 where they are required to write a formal research report, including references to primary literature, that is evaluated by three faculty members, revised, and then filed for ACS accreditation review.

Other Varieties of Discipline-Specific Writing. During the last two years of the program, students are introduced to a variety of written rhetorical genres. In Chem 323, students write literature reviews that require them to research current topics in chemistry and biochemistry, utilizing both primary and secondary literature resources. These assignments, as well as others described below, provide students with experience using literature databases such as SciFinder Scholar and PubMed. The Chem 323 assignment is particularly intensive, with students meeting with the professor at least once during the process, performing peer reviews, and receiving extensive feedback from the professor.

Students are introduced to the process of writing research proposals in Chem 329 and 325.  These assignments also require extensive use of literature research databases, and greatly enhance student’s abilities to read and critique scientific literature.

In our capstone course, IDIS310, students are introduced to yet another genre of written rhetoric. In that course, students write an expository research paper on a topic related to the history or philosophy of science.

Oral and Visual Rhetoric. Third and fourth year students are given many opportunities to practice the art of oral rhetoric, with opportunities to practice both formal and informal presentations of varying lengths. Several courses, including Chem 318, 325, 329, 330, and 383, require students to make short (10-15 min.) informal presentations about journal articles, research techniques, or their own research projects. Students in Chem 324 are given an opportunity to make a long (50 min.) presentation, and students in Chem 395 give a 20 minute formal talk at the weekly departmental seminar which is attended by all departmental majors, minors, and faculty. 

Many of our students also gain experience with visual rhetoric as they present the results of their independent research projects in poster format. All of our summer research students present posters at Calvin’s annual Fall Science Festival, and many of these students also have opportunities to present their posters at regional or national conferences.

III.  Rhetoric Instruction in Departmental Offerings in the Core

Writing is a powerful tool for learning, as it facilitates critical thinking, enhances metacognitive skills, and helps students view course material and the discipline in a larger context. Thus, we frequently use “writing-to-learn” exercises, such as reflection pieces, journal entries, and short in-class writing assignments in our core courses (Chem 103, 104, 101, and 115).  Generally, these assignments are not carefully scrutinized by the instructor. Occasionally, however, instructors do assign more traditional writing assignments that are assessed more rigorously and graded for content. Students in core courses such as IDIS 160, IDIS/GEOG 191, DCM, and Chem 271 and 103H are also given opportunities to learn course content and practice their rhetorical skills through the use of oral and poster presentations.

IV.  Faculty Awareness and Development

Information regarding the department’s Writing Program will be readily available to both faculty and students; this document will be provided to new faculty and posted on the department’s website. New faculty will be introduced to the Writing Program by the Writing Program Liaison who will discuss expectations regarding the provision of faculty feedback on rhetorical assignments and encourage the use of grading rubrics. Awareness of the program will also be heightened by its regular assessment (see below). The department’s Writing Program Liaison will be responsible for reminding faculty of their responsibilities regarding the program and its assessment, especially regarding the provision of adequate feedback on formal lab writing assignments and the need to save copies of student papers for departmental assessment.

Faculty will be encouraged to take advantage of development opportunities, such as writing workshops and conferences, which will be announced and promoted by the Writing Program Liaison at department meetings.

V.  Assessment

A written assessment report will be filed and discussed by the department every 5 years, beginning in 2012. The report will be written by a committee consisting of two members of the Assessment Committee, the Writing Program Liaison, and one or two other faculty members.  The report will have two components: a descriptive assessment, and an outcome assessment.

Descriptive assessment. The committee will survey faculty to assess whether the rhetorical assignments described in the Writing Program are up-to-date, and whether significant changes have been made in the manner in which assignments are graded and feedback is provided. The committee will also study the College Writing Program guidelines to determine if any criteria need to be addressed during the next assessment period. Finally, the descriptive assessment will also include a summary of the results of exit and alumni survey questions regarding the department’s instruction and practice of rhetoric. If needed, the committee will propose changes to the program to reflect any changes in criteria, assignments or feedback.

Outcome assessment. The committee will assess several samples of student writing and oral rhetoric, including formal laboratory reports, literature review essays, and oral presentations. Grading rubrics, like those in the appendix, will be devised by the committee in order to help them accomplish this task in a semi-objective and quantitative manner.

Formal laboratory reports. The Writing Program assessment committee will assess student progress in learning to write formal lab reports by reviewing six formal lab reports written by students during their last year in the program. The Writing Program liaison will collect an assortment of formal research reports written for Chem 304, 317, 325, 330, and 395. The reports should be copies of first drafts, without any revision following feedback from instructors. The committee will then assess the reports using a common rubric.

Literature Review Essays. The committee will assess six literature review essays written in Chem 323. Again, it will be the responsibility of the Writing Program Liaison to collect these papers from the instructors of Chem 323. The committee’s assessment will focus on student abilities to effectively communicate scientific concepts, and the committee will use a common rubric.

Oral Presentations. The committee will write an assessment of student outcomes in oral rhetoric based on 1) faculty assessment of Chem 395 presentations, and 2) reports filed by faculty who require oral presentations in their courses. Chem 395 oral presentations will be assessed, using the standard rubric in the appendix, by all faculty in attendance at seminar. The completed rubrics will be collected by the Writing Program Liaison, who will write a short summary of the faculty assessment.  Individual professors who require oral presentations in their courses will also write short assessments of student outcomes. The Writing Program Liaison will remind them of this responsibility each semester, and the assessment reports will be read by the assessment committee.

Course Numbers and Titles

Chem 101                The Molecular World
Chem 103                General Chemistry I
Chem 104                General Chemistry II
Chem 115                Chemistry for the Health Sciences
Chem 201                Analytical Chemistry
Chem 253                Fundamentals of Organic Chemistry
Chem 261                Organic Chemistry I
Chem 262                Organic Chemistry II
Chem 271                Environmental Chemistry
Chem 281                Laboratory in Environmental Chemistry
Chem 295                Chemistry Seminar
Chem 304                Physical Chemistry for the Biological Sciences
Chem 317                Physical Chemistry I
Chem 318                Physical Chemistry II
Chem 323                Biochemistry I
Chem 324                Biochemistry II
Chem 325                Advanced Organic Chemistry
Chem 329                Instrumental Methods for Chemical and Biological Sciences
Chem 330                Advanced Inorganic Chemistry
Chem 359                Seminar in Secondary Teaching of Chemistry
Chem 383                Laboratory in Chemistry
Chem 395                Independent Study/Research Seminar
IDIS 161                  Energy:  Resources, Use and Stewardship
IDIS/GEOG 191      Introductory Meteorology
IDIS 310                 History of Physical Science


1.  Department Mission Statement, 2003, located at G:\Assessment-StrategPlan\Mission Statement.

2.  Bean, J. C. Engaging Ideas:  The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass, 2001.

3. Kovac, J. and Sherwood, D. Writing Across the Chemistry Curriculum: An Instructor's Handbook.  Upper Saddle River, NJ  :  Prentice Hall, 2001.