Humanities write essays, but STEM fills in bubbles—this is a problem

Humanities write essays, but STEM fills in bubbles—this is a problem

50 questions, 1 hour and 15 minutes. As the clock struck 1 p.m., over 100 students flipped open their test, commencing the third BIOL 215: Cells and Proteins exam. I meandered my way about the exam questions, circling “A” when appropriate, “C” when I had no idea and “D” when it felt right. I then transferred all my responses to a scantron and turned it in. Leaving Strosacker Auditorium, I felt confident that I secured a good score. But did I really know the material?

To what extent did I just know enough—the bare minimum to ensure that I got 45 of the 50 questions correct? What if I just got lucky on a few questions and circled the right answer on accident? And then boom: I got my “A.” Though I did prepare thoroughly for the exam, how does my professor know that? Someone who just memorized, filled in the bubbles and then moved on with their life only to forget the material in a week’s time likely got a great score as well.

The thing that bothers me about using multiple choice exams to gauge students’ comprehension of course material is that it lacks a communication element. Everyone who circles “A” will either all have the right answer or wrong answer. There is no distinction between those students and how well they prepared for the exam. However, through writing, this distinction can be made. Through testing whether students can articulate ideas and scientific reasoning, professors can gauge how well their students understand the material. But nevertheless, most core STEM classes lack a writing component. Thus, students are not writing. And this is a problem.

For the most part, we are all in college to learn. We pick a major based on how it fits into our career goals and take classes within that domain to build a framework of knowledge. But what good is the knowledge we learn if we are unable to communicate it with others? This becomes a problem when the workforce demands people in STEM fields to collaborate and write effectively using core communication skills.

In medicine, doctors are expected to write notes after each patient visit, reporting updates about their patient’s condition. These notes are then faxed to other physicians and insurance companies for referrals and billing purposes. Thus, if the writing lacks coherence and logic, misinterpretations may occur. This creates a communication gap that hinders operations.

Engineers are expected to work in teams. They collaborate with other members to bring ideas together to drive projects forward and meet deadlines. In doing so, they must communicate with other teams working adjacently, sending updates and writing executive memos. Ensuring that ideas are well-articulated is essential to staying on schedule and making sure all parties are on the same page. If teams fail to do so, progress is hard to achieve.

Though the Case Western Reserve University curriculum attempts to prepare students to write through SAGES, and now the communication intensive classes, this preparation falls short because students are not writing in their field of interest. Nevertheless, these classes are still good for gaining rudimentary writing skills, from using evidence to support your argument to outlining essays. However, it is hard to see their relevance to careers after CWRU when you’re not applying them directly to your domain. As a result, skills gained through writing classes are not able to be applied effectively in the real world.

To bridge the gap between learning and communication, writing should be integrated into core STEM courses. From using short-answer questions to test for understanding to assigning essays and executive memos that force students to practice articulating complicated ideas using simple words, writing should be an integral part of learning. In doing so, students will deepen their ability to communicate topics that they will have to deal with throughout their career.

In addition, through emphasizing writing as a means of testing for proficiency, students will be forced to reach for a deeper understanding of the material. They will have to reassess the study habits that encourage building short-term memory to only circle bubbles on an exam, replacing them with more constructive strategies. These strategies will be better for retaining information long-term, making it easier for students to build on their framework of knowledge as they take harder classes.

Though writing can be a frustrating process, with practice over time and good feedback, it becomes easier. As better writers and communicators, students will be better-prepared to enter the workforce. They will make better leaders and better candidates for promotions as they are best able to articulate ideas coherently. So, next time you find yourself writing an essay for a class, thank your instructor. They’re doing you a favor. Stay literate, CWRU.

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