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posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting


Science teachers
often complain about students’
thinking and writing but don’t know
what to do to improve them.
As I’ve said in
talks like
Stories about Stories and A Decade
of Innovation
, when I arrived at UBC in 1974
I asked about 40 colleagues to tell me
their biggest complaints about
students in upper-level
science courses. 

Surprisingly, their
biggest complaints weren’t that
students didn’t know enough about DNA
or any other content, though they did complain
about that – teachers always do. 
But those weren’t
the big complaints. The two biggest, and bigger
by far, were that when students reached
3rd and 4th year science courses,
they couldn’t think and
couldn’t write.

Even now,
47 years later, it makes
me smile to remember that. That
informal survey of the state of university
science education went a long way
setting the 
course of the rest of my
teaching career – – especially
how I’ve thought
about it.


Learning to Think and Write

argument is very
simple.  According to Croatian
sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, the only way
to learn to sculpt is to sculpt. Isn’t that how
we  learn almost everything?  
If so, then learning
to think and write means thinking and writing, writing
and thinking, and thinking and writing some more.  For
to learn to do those things, and most of us say we
want them to,
we must ensure they do them regular-
demand they do them well, offer feed-
for improvement, opportunities to
improve, and
celebrate their

No wonder students can’t
think or write!

Students are
too busy memorizing details
to see the Big Pictures of the courses
they take. 
They can’t see the forest for the
trees and wouldn’t have time to think about
it if they could. 
Science students rarely practice
writing. More important, they rarely if ever get
usable feedback early enough in their writing to
make a difference in the final product.
Something similar is true in most
disciplines, I’ve heard, and it
disturbs me greatly that
it is this way. 


talking with
about this over
the years, most have agreed on
several things. 
Writing is a medium
for thinking. 
hinking and writing are
skills that improve with practice and useful
feedback.  W
riting not only expresses quality of
thinking but measures it, so draft by draft, quality
of writing reveals quality of the processes producing
it.  Improvement in the quality of documents reveals
improvement in the quality of the processes that
produce the improvement.  Quality of thinking
is invisible.  It can’t be detected without
quality speaking, writing, and
other behaviour.

Quality of writing
both reveals and depends upon
quality of thinking

those same colleagues
freely admitted that the quality
of their own writing improved with
, draft after draft, and on the advan-
tages of sending papers out for private review before
submitting them for publication.
They agreed that
learning to write empowers learning to think
and vice versa. 
They agreed students
should learn to write and we
should do something to
help them. 

Even with
all that agreement, profs
almost universally argue, anywhere
I’ve talked with them about it, anywhere in
the world at any level, that even if there were time
in courses to require significant writing, it would
be impossible
to comment on early drafts and
get them back in time to be useful in revision.
would take all term just to read the drafts,
let alone comment on them!  “
that why we have English

I’d been reading
and commenting on
drafts of first year student
papers for years, but I usually
didn’t argue that point. It does take
time to read student papers, especially if
most of them are written at the last minute,
written poorly, written only once, and rarely
written about issues important
to their authors.
They are just “assignments”. 
Just understanding
what students try to say is challenging. Even the
thought of doing this for large numbers of
students makes anyone blanch, inclu-
ding me, and conversations
usually stop there.


Here I describe
an exercise that links the
challenges of thinking, writing,
and rewriting into one, with
first year university science students.  Since, the
approach has been used at other levels, disciplines,
and countries and could be used in courses on anything,
including courses on writing.
It would be interesting to
know what other teachers think of the idea and what
they’ve done to accomplish the same ends,
and to
know from students and former students what
works and doesn’t work for them in their
own learning to think and write and
what they think might work
for others.


The Assignment

Early in a
year-long first year
interdisciplinary science
Science One,
we did four things.

First, as the
biologist on the team I
asked students to read a new article
in the premier professional science journal
Science about snake tongues.  Second, t
he team
presented a difficult related problem the same
week in tutorial.  Third,
The physicist, chemist, and
mathematician on the team addressed related issues in
lectures.  Fourth,
I asked students to write a paper.
The assignment handout is at the end of the
story. It’s simple but there’s a lot
to understand before
you use it.


The Paper in Science

In spring 1994, biologist Kurt
Schwenk published  a research paper
in Science, a premier scientific journal.
Why Snakes Have Forked Tongues. It was
an ideal introduction to professional
scientific literature for Sc1 students
in several important ways.

An objective
of the assignment was to
foster good writing by students and I
wanted them to see the good stuff at the start.
Schwenk’s paper is unusually well written.
Anyone can read and understand it. Give it a read.
For students even to know what to reach for
in their own writing they had to read,
appreciate, and learn to
love the best.

Schwenk’s study
is good science.  It offers
a clear and convincing explanation
of the forkedness of snake tongues that
leads to more questions about more kinds
of things than snake tongues and invites new
work.  That
 is what we expect in good
scientific literature, and that it
was a new study made
it even better.

Schwenk didn’t
have to write much to make his
points.  He
let snake tongues do
the talking so his paper
is short.

Schwenk’s paper
is not highly technical for
a paper in Science and most other
journals. You don’t have to learn anything
new or be expert in anything. Read it, understand
it, and think with Schwenk about it. Imagine your-
self asking questions like that, doing work like
that, publishing papers like that in Science.
I wanted students to put themselves
in Schwenk’s place.

There is
nothing complex
in  Schwenk’s story. His question,
experiments, analysis, and interpretation
are all simple.  But the paper
complex, highly technical questions

In a deep,
general sense, Schwenk
studied what I studied. I found
his paper in reading for my own work,
and it interested me first for that reason.  Then
it blossomed into an idea about learning to
In a nutshell, what Schwenk and I
is how animals use ‘smarts’ to get
around the world and get along in
– what Behavioural Ecology
is about.

It didn’t
matter at all for the
writing assignment what students
or whether they read anything at all.
Reading was just the trigger,
and what mattered
most was that they did something that got them
thinking about certain kinds of things in
certain kinds of ways and writing
about that experience.

Why do snakes have
forked tongues?

Schwenk concluded
that snake tongues taste different
parts of the world with different parts of
their bodies at the same time with the 2 forks.
compare the tastes for mouse scent, veer
slightly toward the stronger, and stay on the trail of a
Compared to our own nostrils, which are close
together and insensitive,
snake tongue tips are
far apart relative to snake, mouse and
and sensitive enough to tell
the difference. 

how snakes find food and
they’re good at it. 

Not only
but snake tongues
and necks
are long and flexible
and sample off to the side as they go,
back and forth.  I
t helps them stay in the
middle of mousiness on the way to the prey.
If tongue tips taste mousiness equally, the
snake is right on track.  I
f not, it is off to
the side and must adjust, bringing
it back to the track.

That’s basically
what Schwenk said in his
paper, but the details don’t matter so
much here.  But it mattered to the students
when they got into it.  Schwenk made it easy for
them intellectually and led them directly into one
of the more difficult things they’d ever
tried to do before. 
Schwenk’s study
showed him how snakes do it,
and his paper showed
the students.

I wanted them to
think because I wanted them
to write.  I wanted them to write
because I wanted them to think.
The assignment put thinking
and writing together.


The Tutorial

In tutorial
sessions the same week,
we asked a simple question about
bacteria.  Answering it required complicated
calculations with very small numbers.  Here is an
example of a small number:
0.0000071 (we write it
as 7.1 x 10^-6). 
Beginning students typically find that
hard.  We wanted them to practice, and the tutorial
would help them in all four disciplines for that
In terms of the writing assignment,
the remarkable similarity of the subject
matter to Kurt Schwenk’s question
about snake tongues
was perfect.

Could a
bacterium of a certain
size taste different parts of a
concentration gradient with different
parts of its body at the same time and
compare them?  O
r are bacteria too small
for that?  Must they remember things
and compare them later? 
bacteria remember

That problem
served several objectives
at once, each central to the integrated
Students needed certain skills,
in this case in using small numbers, and we
had already decided to use that tutorial problem
that week for that reason.  T
hen I found Schwenk’s
paper, thought of the writing exercise,
and we
folded all of it together, catching students
in a crossfire of reading, thinking,
writing, editing, rewriting,
and small number

Maybe we could get it all done at once.

problem was difficult
technically, even for high per-
forming Science One students.
The conclusion they reached
interested and surprised
them as well as

Using their
own calculations from real
data we supplied about real bacteria,
along with evidence that the bacteria swim up
and down concentration gradients, they concluded
that those b
acteria are too small to sense gradients
directly, like snakes compare tastes on
the tips of their 
tongues to find
their prey. 

Bacteria would
have to taste in one place,
taste again in another place, then
compare them.  B
acteria would
need a memory!

A memory?

For the bacteria
in the tutorial problem
and the students in the tutorial,
that meant memory,
and the students
couldn’t wiggle out of it.
Bacteria wiggled,
swam up and down concentration gradients,
did just fine, and nobody batted an eye. But
bacteria remembering things?  That
was hard for them to imagine.

It’s hard for anyone
to imagine.

In terms of
the writing assignment,
bacteria with memories
complemented W
hy Snakes have Forked
It stretched students’ minds beyond
Schwenk’s question
about snakes to wonder
about bacteria and snakes using the
same kind of information to solve
similar problems. 
Or any
organism or engin-
eered object.

It seemed
like a good way to get
some good mind-stretching done.

What about
Whales? Bats?
Missiles? Hummingbirds? Driverless cars?
Drivers?  Skiers? Skateboarders?  Bikers?  Play-
ing hockey? 
What do we even mean by memory?
What does anyone mean?  How do we remember
things?  How could it work?
Why do we need a
word like that? Without saying so,
I wanted
them to wrestle with those issues, and
trusted it to come to a head
in their writing.

Our objectives
were simple.  In addition to
many direct benefits of each element
of this complex ‘unit of work’, we wanted to
know two things from the experiment.  Can facing
several similar but different difficult challenges at once
make it easier, not harder, in the long run?  Can it push
problems to deeper levels, where paradoxes resolve,
dissonance dissipates, and understanding springs
from ‘separate’ bodies of knowledge?
We also
wanted to know how fully one exercise
could serve each of four science

The student papers
were delightful.  Arguments
were thoughtful and compelling. The
diversity of perspectives, approaches, and
examples was amazing.   It was a treat to hear
students discuss what we wanted them to wrestle
with.  It was built into the project that they stayed
in touch with each other about how the papers were
developing.  They competed with each other AND
did their level best to make each others’ papers
better.  They shared so much about so
many things in so many ways,
in and through their

We didn’t do
much at all. Watching students
struggle with implications of their
assumptions and calculations fascinated
each of us on the teaching team, for
different kinds of reasons. 

For me,
most fascinating was
to watch them realize that the
bacteria and snake problems were
almost identical despite vast differences
in scale and detail, but the solutions are so
different. That similarity underlined the fact
that the assignment did not ask them to
discuss snakes or bacteria necessarily,
but to discuss general problems of
using information to guide
movement of anything.


In the
writing assignment,
students had a week to do the
research and write the first draft of
the paper and things went on from there
for several weeks. 
Each student was an editor
of two other students’ papers and the author
of his or her own, and everyone got three
equally weighted marks for
the exercise. 

Here’s how it worked.

On the due
date for first drafts, a
secretary date-stamped them and
gave them to first editors, which was everyone.
ditors did three things with authors’
papers , two as editors and the
third as surrogate

They wrote
short papers about
the papers
, commenting on
the conceptual approach and other
things, and on the writing in general, as
scientists do reviewing journal papers. 
like our service to our own peers, editors went
over authors’ papers carefully, looking for ways to
them. Marginal notes, stapled notes, calls in
the night, whatever. 
In their copy editor role, they saw
details like extra or missing commas, misspellings, and
typos.  They edited substance, structure, and meaning,
made arguments clearer, more cogent and power-
ful, made paragraphs and sentences
punchier and made them sing. 

In both
roles, editors
served authors by showing
them how to make the same paper
better by changing its particulars. 
surrogate authors, editors took their own
advice and completely rewrote authors’
papers for them
.  Editors, not authors,
authored the second drafts of
authors’ papers!

Several fascinating things happened.

Not really
surprisingly, though it did
surprise us, many or most editors
had to interview authors to be sure of
what they had tried to express. We antici-
pated nothing like that, and didn’t know about
it until somebody noticed. 
Once it began, inter-
viewing authors was so spectacularly effec-
tive that it spread like an infection
and everyone did it.

What a wonderful surprise!

To be sure,
to be interviewed by peers
about the quality of one’s writing
was humbling for everyone.  But with no
input from us the practice persisted and grew
more effective until the final drafts were in. Some
authors contacted their editors at the 11th hour
to be sure they had understood what editors
meant in their comments, essays, or
rewrites.  It was exciting to
watch it happen.

Editors edited,
authors authored in response,
and both drafts benefited. 
It was both
humbling and growth-promoting. Everyone
was an author, everyone was an editor, all
papers were edited, rewritten,  re-edited,
and rewritten.  Everyone wrote and
talked about it, all at once.

From my
perspective as an edu-
cator it was wonderful to watch
the entire scenario unfold, watch thinking
grow more and more clear, and writing grow
more readable. Once it started, we had essentially
no input. Authors and editors asked questions about
all kinds of things, and that in itself was instructive.
We responded, b
ut didn’t intervene.  Editors want-
ed to know how to respond to serious problems
without discouraging authors or hurting
feelings, for example. One editor felt in
competition with the author
and vice versa. 

Some authors
didn’t trust editors and
wanted to talk about it.
Some editors
thought they weren’t good enough writers to
rewrite authors’ papers and needed encouragement.
Early in the process, students bounced ideas off us about
examples to use in writing or arguments they might
make. Mainly, though, the group got down to
business, left us more or less out of it, and
dealt with challenges themselves,
both as individuals and as
a community. 

What made
rewriting transformative,
I think, is that
editors didn’t write what
they themselves would have written,
had they written the papers
that they read. They

That wasn’t
the point.
The point was
to do a better job of writing what
authors already wrote. 
For editors, the
point was not to be authors but to stand in
for them.  N
ot to write newer and better papers,
but more effective versions of the same ones.
Authors and editors had to confront a fun-
damental issue that never goes away
and grapple with it,  as simple as
that sounds on the surface.

What does it mean to be different?
What does it mean to be the same?

If the issues I
asked them to deal with had
been black and white or trivial, the
work would have been easy and the editing
almost pointless.  In the
real-world complexity of
the exercise, no part of it was black, white, trivial,
or arbitrary. In addition to the strictly scientific
issues at the heart of the biology, students faced
ethical and political issues, the psychology of
personal limits, and the intellectual
challenges of understanding
difficult material. 

Remember, editors weren’t
experts on  what authors wrote about
and authors weren’t either.  When editors
urged authors deeper it took both
of them deeper.



On the due date,
editors stapled essays,
comments, and second drafts
over first drafts, a secretary date-
stamped it and passed it back to authors,
who rewrote their papers for the third draft.
On the next due date, the second editors, always
different people than first editors, reviewed
and rewrote the paper again to produce
a fourth draft. Finally, authors produced
final fifth drafts, stapled the whole
pile together, and submitted
them to the secretary.

What follows may
be difficult to believe, but
I’m not exaggerating.  It was no
superhuman feat to read the writing,
the editing, and the improvement that
resulted from it, assign three marks
to each student and comment on
it, all in one night.

By the time
I got the piles, final drafts
were magnificent.  It takes no time
at all to read and evaluate magnificent
papers. Like Kurt Schwenk’s paper about
snake tongues, they were
easy to read, written
well in a technical sense and were more deeply
and thoughtfully considered than I expected,
more persuasively organized, and written
in prose I could speed through,
‘get’, and evaluate quickly.

In one night
I read and commented
on 65 piles, judging the quality
of only the final draft.  I judged authors’
receptiveness to insightful feedback, the value
of  the feedback, and commented at length if
missed important things or ideas were so interesting I
couldn’t help myself. 
Perhaps most importantly, the
evidence in the piles encouraged commenting on
the evolution and maturation of papers
through the editorial process.

In marking and commenting,
I stressed three things.

How effective
were editors
in serving
authors, not just serving them-
Had this been a normal first
year science course that early in the year,
female students would have been more
effective editors in the first round, but
Sc1 quickly develops an atmosphere
of trust and cooperation.
is not always the case
in universities.

How open
were authors
to editors’
input?  This was difficult for some
authors, and again, cooperation at this
level of intellectual intimacy, especially in a
public arena, was new and challenging for
How effective were author-
editor partnerships
in clarifying,
expressing, and strengthening

scientific arguments?

Final drafts
were readable, enjoyable,
and revealed all sorts of things. Voices
became clearer, more insightful, and more
persuasive as papers progressed through the
drafting.  E
ditors were better second editors than
first editors, etc. 
The exercise was a monument
to editors, authors, and the community of scholar-
ship we were building in Science One, as
well as to a set of ideas about
how people learn. 

Going through
the piles was an enjoyable
evening’s work for me and a fun
and interesting challenge for everyone.
Best of all, students in that first class
to do a similar exercise the next
Thinking and writing
about scientific issues had
become part of their
lives and they
loved it.

The first
version of this paper
was published in
at the Centre for Development of
Teaching and Learning at the National
University of Singapore.

assignment was
very difficult for most
SC1 students. It was the first
time they had worked with deep
abstractions in their writing. Asking them
to consider in the same conceptual framework
a snake, which they thought intelligent, and a
bacterium they thought had no intelligence
forced students to reconsider their ideas of
intelligence, information, and navigation,
build explicitly mechanistic ones,
and write in simple terms
about that.

problem is so clearly
geometric, the great difference in
size of organisms made the assignment
difficult mathematically. The students
whined about the assignment and we
spent time counseling them about it,
but they loved it, felt proud of
themselves, and wanted
to do it again.

A variation
on this theme with
different content worked well
in Singapore.  Several colleagues at
UBC and elsewhere, like Swarthmore,
have used it in several courses at several
Its greatest utility to us as teachers
is that because papers are so readable
by the time we see them, we can
evaluate them quickly.

In principle,
that should allow
students to write much more
in courses than we normally
think possible.

SC1 student
Josie Hughes came up
with such interesting ideas that
I encouraged her to write to Kurt
Schwenk about them. 
He encouraged
her enthusiastically, offerred ideas
of his own, and clearly implied
he thought she was a
grad student. 

Josie was two
years younger than most
of her peers (I think 16 at the time)
and came from a very small high school
in the  interior mountains of British Columbia.
Now she is a PhD ecologist and mathematical
modeller with
Environment and Climate Change
.  She works on many problems,
including the epidemiology and
antibiotic resistance
of bacteria.

Here is the handout
that presented the writing assignment.

An Exercise in Thinking,
Writing, Editing, and Re-writing

Mobile organisms
move, by definition. But
where do they move, and how
do they know where to go?  How
do they get the information they
need, and how does that depend
on their size in relation to
what they need?

Write a
short paper on this
topic, based on the article
Why Snakes Have Forked Tongues
and the example of bacterial chemotaxis
in this week’s tutorial.
Your paper will not be
about snakes or bacteria, but about something
much more general than that: the problem of gaining
and using information.
Use examples about snakes,
bacteria, or any other organisms including yourself,
but the object is to discuss the general problem. 
scientists must write but few are ‘born writers’.
Nearly everyone must go through at least
several drafts, and sometimes first
drafts of brilliant papers
are horrible!

In Phase One
you will produce a first draft.

In Phase Two
an assigned editor will
help you improve it, you will
edit someone else’s, everyone will
their papers and second
will edit them again.

In Phase Three
you will submit a final
draft. Both authors and editors
will be marked on their contributions,
so you will receive three separate
marks for the assignment – one
for your final draft and
two for your editing.

Suggestions for editors.
The most useful
editorial comments are
both critical and supportive,
refer to both concepts and details
of writing, and are specific enough that
authors know what you refer to and how you
think passages can be improved. Begin with a
paragraph of general remarks on the author’s
approach to the problem: how effective it is and
how it might be improved.  For grammatical,
spelling, and other details, write on the
draft, legibly. Put more substantive
comments in a list and flesh them
out in your own paper, keyed to
small circled numbers in
the author’s draft. 

Your objective
as an editor is not to show
off how smart you are about the subject
or how good a writer,
but to help authors write
better papers.  Y
our marks as an editor
will reflect how well you meet
that objective.

Just for fun, here is
another story about snake tongues.
Why snakes flick them.  All these stories are
about how predators find food.   At the same
time, their prey evolve
ways to avoid
becoming food. 
These videos show
kangaroo rats reacting fast
enough to miss a rattle-
snake strike.

In describing
what editors did with authors’
papers I referred to editors helping authors
make passages ‘sing’.  I used that metaphor often in
talking with students about writing, including
graduate students, and never defined it. 

Former grad
student Ken Lertzman,
professor of resource management
at Simon Fraser University, published
widely used paper about writing, intended
specifically for graduate students.  He described
rewards and frustrations of
working with me
on his writing. 
He referred to making
prose sing, but I
don’t remember
whether he defined the term.

To my way of
thinking about it now,
‘to s
ing’ is a more useful metaphor
left open, ambiguous, and undefined.
Mean whatever you mean by sing.
But whatever you mean, really
mean it and
do what you do
to make passages sing
that way.

Edited May 2022

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