Expressive Writing in Science Courses Keeps Students Grounded

Before attacking a problem set or being introduced to a new concept, some students at San Francisco State University will pause during their science class to do something unusual: ponder life, write thoughts into a journal, and share them with classmates. Why am I here? What am I contributing to this class? Who can I go to when times are tough? While it’s not unexpected for humanities classes to incorporate self-reflection, expressive writing in science classes is much less common. 

The thought of doing expressive writing in science classes at SFSU came to Khanh Tran when he had an aha moment while taking an ethnic studies class two years ago. Whereas the ethnic studies class was “all about my personal experience,” science courses are “about someone else’s — someone’s theory, someone’s discovery, someone’s knowledge,” says Tran, a SFSU biology and Asian-American studies major who is the youngest son of Vietnamese immigrants. Ethnic studies classes emphasize “what you know, what you can bring to the classroom.”

Every day, as Tran recalls, his ethnic studies professor Arlene Daus-Magbual began class by asking students a check-in question. On a scale of 1 to 10, how stressed do you feel? Which animal do you feel most aligned with? One student said she liked the check-ins because they didn’t simply ask what you know, but also how you’re feeling. Tran wondered if this sort of activity could help first-generation students persist and succeed in STEM majors.

Tran put the concept of expressive writing in science into place in a college STEM class. Each week as class started, students spent five minutes reflecting on a provided question. They jotted thoughts into a composition book, then had the option of sharing insights and experiences with the class before returning their journals to the instructor. At first a few students balked at the activity, eager to dive straight into course material. Others hesitated because of shame or worry.

“We’re taught to think a bit more linearly [in STEM]…to not bring personality or thought or rationale into our classes,” says Sergio Ramirez, an SFSU senior who several years ago took the SI program and now serves as a class facilitator.

“At first I didn’t want to open up to anybody,” says Mireya Arreguin, a biology major. “I come from a Mexican family whose parents didn’t go to college, who didn’t even finish middle school. And it was like, why am I here? Am I the only one who’s trying to put up a face?”

Before long students got more comfortable being honest about their struggles. “We all started opening up and liking it more,” Arreguin says. “It was actually enjoyable and stress-relieving.”

In end-of-semester evaluations, students gave feedback on their experience with the journal writing in science class. Did it help their learning? Did it help them understand why they’re going to college? The answer was overwhelmingly yes. Some students said they wished their instructors had read what they’d written and given feedback week to week, like an interactive diary. 

This semester, about 320 students — 16 of 23 SI classes (biology, chemistry, physics, math) — are doing the in-class journaling. With this expanded participation, Tran hopes to get a clearer picture of the activity’s impact. For example, does it help students earn better grades or stay in STEM or reduce stress levels? The project is called SEEP (Self-Empowering Expressive Purpose). It’s funded through SF BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity), a program the university launched in 2014 as part of the National Institutes of Health’s effort to diversify the biomedical workforce.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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