386254 Peer Assessment As a Means of Improving Scientific Writing

Wednesday, November 19, 2014: 9:00 AM
M105 (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
Eva Sorensen, Department of Chemical Engineering, UCL, London WC1E 7JE, United Kingdom

Writing is one of the marks of human civilisation as a means by which humans communicate with each other. Besides communication of a finalised piece of research, written work is the basis for further opinions, views and critiques from fellow professionals and academics separated by time and distance. Most importantly, it represents a permanent record of scientific work that has been completed. While keeping records is quite easy to do, writing scientific reports or papers can be quite difficult, and especially for undergraduate students who have never done so before. The importance of good scientific communication is indisputable, and good writing skills are a key attribute for careers both in academia and in industry. It scarcely matters how good the technical work is, if its significance is not communicated clearly and accurately.

We train our students in scientific writing by having them write reports regularly as part of their undergraduate and graduate programmes. Students normally write draft reports for their supervisors, and receive feedback on these. They do not always properly understand the feedback, however, as they rarely have a clear appreciation of what a good report should look like. Even if they are shown examples of previous reports they still struggle to see their own work in relation to the work of others. They also find it very challenging to comment on the writing of others, let alone their own.

This work focuses on the use of peer assessment to improve scientific writing in the 4th undergraduate year, or Senior year, at the Department of Chemical Engineering, UCL in London, UK. The peer assessment has been running for 4 years so far and has proven extremely valuable in improving the students’ writing skills. The students take two compulsory modules which are mainly assess based on scientific reports, each worth 25% of the final year, focusing on design and research, respectively. The design module is predominantly based on group work, whilst the research project is individual. Both modules run over two terms, and for the same cohort of between 35 and 50 students.

In the design module, each group of six students will regularly provide feedback on a draft report from another group. The draft reports are typically 25-30 pages long and cover different aspects of the design and assessment of a control system of a given chemical plant. The feedback is a one page written commentary to the draft report and should cover both technical and presentation aspects. The students do not provide a mark for their peers, and their assessment is hence formative. The students are given the choice at the start of the academic year of whether or not they should also allocate a mark, but have so far every year unanimously decided not to do so. The one page commentary is assessed by the module tutors, and contributing to the peer assessment is therefore necessary to complete the module.

In the research project module, the students work independently on a piece of research in collaboration with an academic supervisor and sometimes also a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher. The student will meet regularly with the supervisor, but is otherwise working on his or her own. The students have to submit an interim report after the first term (4,000 words), outlining the existing literature and the research aims and objectives of their project. The report is not formally assessed but will typically become the first two sections of their final report (10,000 words) which is submitted at the end of term 2. The draft reports are reviewed by a group of four or five students, of which the author is one, together with a supervisor. The students all read each other’s reports beforehand, and in the meeting, discuss the relative merits of each draft and together highlight best practice in terms of writing. They also all summarise which changes they will be making to their own drafts following the feedback from their peers.

In this contribution, the detailed module structures, and the motivations behind, will be presented, and examples will be given of the different modes of assessment. The results from end-of-module student surveys will also be included which show that the students find the peer assessment in both modules extremely helpful, and highly relevant to their studies and their future careers in terms of improving their abilities to write clear and concise technical reports.

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See more of this Session: Professional Skills Development in the Chemical Engineering Curriculum
See more of this Group/Topical: Education Division