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Creating great feedback on science lab reports

┬áT.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” We’re thinking April is Lab Report Month.

Okay, forgive the clumsy literary transition. Eliot was talking about how the hope and sunshine and flowers of spring throws your depression into an even harsher relief. Better it be dark, with short days and cold winds, to avoid any hope whatsoever.

Maybe a better connection to Eliot’s line is “creating great feedback on lab reports is the cruelest writing feedback job.”

Lab reports are perhaps the most plagiarized writing assignments in education. They are repetitive, largely the same amongst huge entry level courses, and students often don’t value them. To a student, a lab report can feel like a completely inauthentic series of meaningless charts and cookie-cutter results required to earn an acceptable grade. In huge programs (think 30 sections of freshman Chemistry) lab reports are often graded by TAs, many of whom may be International students with a tenuous grasp of written English.

From an instructor’s point of view, the mountain of same-as-the-next lab reports presents an extra cruel irony: labs are crucial to the acquisition of science skills but the volume and sameness makes for especially harsh grading and feedback conditions. Like reading Internal Revenue Service rules and regulations for thirty hours straight (taxes are another reason April is cruel, at least in the USA!).

There are many, many challenges to doing labs well. Unlike other courses, the logistics of labs adds an additional layer of complexity: access to facilities, scheduling instructors and TAs to keep things moving and safe, consumable materials management, authentic pre-lab work, and the mountain of paperwork that results.

This April we’re celebrating the creative work of some new Annotate PRO (AP) users who are putting a dent in these challenges.

Leaders from Pittsburg State University’s Writing Center kicked off the month presenting a poster session at the New England Writing Centers Association conference featuring their use of Annotate PRO to help scaffold and structure peer tutor feedback on Chemistry lab reports. They authored an expert Library of Chemistry lab report feedback, then shared that Library through Annotate PRO with all undergraduate writing consultants.

They discussed how the convenience of asynchronous writing tutoring appeals to students (email or submit online, get feedback a day later). According to Dr. Janet Zepernick, Lora Winters, and Glenn Storey “Online consultations on chemistry lab reports are by far the most challenging types of consultations for [their] predominantly undergraduate consultants, most of whom are with [the Writing Center] for only two or three semesters.

Their preliminary research shows that the majority of “freestyle” comments – completely custom comments written by Writing Center consultants – were judged to be “Neutral or Bad in impact.” 96% of comments added with Annotate PRO, from a library developed to support Chemistry Lab Reports, were judged to be Good feedback, defined as “the right feedback used at the right time in a way likely to improve the outcome for the writer.”

This finding is consistent with our own experience watching engineering professors provide feedback on first-year engineering student reports. Often full professors focused on perceived grammar and mechanics errors, equating “writing” with “following the rules,” neglecting substantial feedback on ideas and evidence. Ironically, much of their mechanical feedback was incorrect – a double pedagogical tragedy.

Pittsburg State concluded that the path to improvement goes through training with Annotate PRO as the vehicle to frame professional development and also measure its impact.

Meanwhile, far to the West and North, PhD student Carrie Ann Adams was putting AP to good use in her Biology Labs. Ms. Adams is at the other end of this spectrum: she is a subject-matter expert who cares deeply about writing. In her own words:

I am a PhD student teaching an undergrad biology lab. I use Microsoft Word to review student lab report and installed Annotate PRO (AP) a few weeks ago. AP has already saved me a lot of time and mental space.
Within my AP Library I created Groups for each section of the lab report (Introduction, methods, results, discussion) and then sub-Groups for each part of each section (e.g. within the Introduction: Background, Objective, Hypothesis, Relevance). It makes it easy to find the comments I’m looking for.
I especially like the Feed feature. It makes it easy to add comments to the Library as I’m grading. Since using AP, I’ve been able to give my students more detailed feedback. Instead of “incorrect in text citation format”, I now use the drop down menu to insert a longer comment “incorrect in-text citation format. See p. 81 of lab manual for CSE formatting guidelines.” I also use the time I save with the drop-down menu to write more personalized comments for each student.

Annotate PRO’s promise is straightforward: experts, whether professors leading large lab courses or writing center directors responsible for supporting numerous courses and genres, can document exemplar feedback in Annotate PRO Libraries, then share those Libraries with a single click. Other instructors, TAs, consultants, or tutors can use those Libraries in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Canvas SpeedGrader, Blackboard – almost anywhere you might type feedback. AP doesn’t replace these solutions; it complements them. And of course AP’s feedback is just a starting point. Once added to a specific student’s work the stock comment can be immediately personalized.

These Libraries can be updated and edited centrally and summary usage data easily aggregated and reported.

We look forward to engaging with more lab work, helping reinforce writing in the disciplines while lowering the tremendous workload required to do it well.