Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague in the English Department. Her research concerns the interactions between reading, writing and disciplinarity. In her role as Associate Dean of Arts she's been working to improve the usefulness of the Arts courses that Science students are required to take. I had thought she might be a good source of advice about interpreting the 'homework project' data, but it was other ideas that got me excited.
We talked about how students make the transition from (a) their high-school relationship to science ('science' is a body of facts I am learning) to (b) seeing themselves as practitioners of science ('science' is how we learn about the world). Reading and writing in the discipline can be a big help with this transition. But it's important that what is read be genuine scientific writing, not writing for students. We talked about how to help students understand the language styles and conventions of research papers (I think her word would be 'genres'), and how this can help them understand how science works. I am going to adopt her practice of taking a paragraph from a research paper and working with students in class to pull it apart and understand what it is communicating, and how. I can use paragraphs from the research papers used in the homeworks, which will also help students see how the homework material is indeed closely tied to the course goals.
We also talked about helping students shift their emphasis from answers (what are the facts?) to questions (what do we want to find out, and how can we do that?) My course's textbook does this very well, but I haven't really tried to reinforce it by what happens in class. I told her that the most successful change I'd made this past year was having students pose questions about the textbook readings (see 3491 questions about biology). Next year I'm going to expand on the question-posing, both in class and in the homework assignments.
This colleague has also, in her capacity as Associate Dean, hired some post-doctoral fellows to work on student writing issues. I'm hoping we can set up a collaboration, using them and perhaps our science teaching fellows, that will enrich the experience for everyone.