More than Make-Work Writing in my Advanced Lab Course

I teach the Advanced Physics Laboratory course in my department. This type of course, a standard course in most physics departments, is a standalone lab course without any associated lecture course. There is an amazing amount of variability from one Advanced Lab course to the next and they range in format from one experiment per week with everything already set up and cookbook procedures ready to be followed, to a single student-developed project over the entire term (or year!).

Often communication is emphasized in these courses, with the probably the most common forms of dissemination being formal lab reports modeled after journal articles and oral presentations.

I started to prepare in May for my 2nd time teaching this course and it’s not running until January 2012. I had tweaked the writing tasks that I was going to assign to the students when I came across the following paper:

Inquiry-Based Writing in the Laboratory Course, Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg, Science Vol. 332 no. 6032 pp. 919-920 (May 2011). DOI: 10.1126/science.1200353

This paper ended up helping me further develop effective student writing tasks by making sure I was giving the students a tangible audience and by cutting out some portions of these writing tasks which were probably more make-work than anything.

Feel free to contact me if you need help finding a copy of this paper.

Paper Summary

I’m not certain I understand what exactly “inquiry-based writing” is (blame how poorly define inquiry-based anything is), but I am taking points discussed in Moskovitz and Kellog’s paper as a guide to giving students productive/effective writing tasks in the lab. This is in contrast to assigning to the students the standard lab reports which the authors describe as “largely inauthentic and make-work affairs, involving little actual communication beyond the implicit argument for a good grade.”

My rough summary (filtered through my own interests) of their main three points for designing effective writing tasks in the lab are:

  1. Assign forms (genres) of writing that working scientists use, such as journal articles, experimental reports, proposals, peer reviews, and conference posters.
  2. Ensure that students have something meaningful to say. It’s OK for the writing task to include only certain parts of a given genre. For example, if the students didn’t design or modify the procedures, how are they supposed to see writing up a methods section as meaningful?
  3. Create a real communication scenario by providing them with a tangible audience for their written work. This does not mean asking them to imagine addressing scientists in their field, but instead providing them with a real audience that will have interest in their work.

In the context of my course, I have taken these three points and used them to inform all the communication tasks in the lab, not just written tasks. But in this post I will focus on the written tasks.

Summary of my course

The primary characteristics of my Advanced Lab course are

  1. The term is divided roughly into thirds. The first third of the course is dedicated to developing skills[1]critical to (or at least useful for) the Advanced Lab through shorter experimental tasks. Each student spends the remainder of the term working in series on two research projects including mostly written dissemination of their results.
  2. Model the course after a physics research group with the students taking on the role of apprentice scientists (co-op students, graduate students, etc.) and me taking on the role of research supervisor. The entire class is treated as a larger research group and there are weekly group meetings (see this earlier post of mine for more of my thoughts on running a course in a way similar to how a research group functions).
  3. Each student research project is part of a larger ongoing research line. Future projects build upon previous projects instead of repeatedly replicating what previous students have done year after year.

I must tip my hat to Martin Madsen at Wabash College from whom I borrowed/ stole/ adopted characteristics 2 and 3. His course webpage can be found here and some of the research lines that he offers have seen three or more projects on the same line.

The experimental equipment that I use for each of the research lines typically have multiple well-defined experimental tasks, but also have plenty of room for students to explore some “intellectual phase-space” with novel experimental tasks being possible and plenty of freedom for future projects to build upon previous ones.

Connecting the dots between this paper and my course

My real communication scenario makes future students the tangible audience – The major light bulb that went on in my head thanks to this paper was the realization there was a lack of tangible audience in the student task of writing a journal article for the vague blob of “scientists in their field” or even for a local faux “journal of advanced lab.” In my experience, the journal article (typically in the style of American Journal of Physics) is one of the most common forms of formal writing that Advanced Lab instructors ask of their students, but with very very very few students actually publishing these papers to journals the audience is vague and intangible. Here is where Martin Madsen’s wonderful idea of research lines lends a great big hand to this communication scenario. Instead of the journal articles being written for these intangible audiences, the research line structure makes it so that the tangible audience for each project group is the future groups of students that will be working on their research line. For future students to build on the previous experimental work in a specific research line, they will necessarily have to use the journal articles written by previous students. Authentic audience = [✓].

Before coming across this paper, my plan was to have each student write a journal article for one of their experiments and a popular-science-level article (e.g., New Scientist or Scientific American) for the other. Students are partnered up, so for a given experiment one partner would write the journal article and the other the popular science article. What I really liked about this idea was that I thought that the popular science article would force them to focus on the big picture idea of why their results are interesting without getting so bogged down in the gory experimental and analysis details one would see in a journal article. I also thought it would allow the students to write drastically different papers based on the same shared experimental and background research experiences. Unfortunately, I do not have a target “tangible audience” for these popular-science-level articles.

My new primary writing tasks are a technical note and and a wiki entry – Even with a now-tangible audience (future students), the journal article as a writing task is not completely authentic for my students. Once an initial group in a research line has written introduction and theory sections, future groups will simply be parroting that work. Keep in mind that the introduction section in a typical journal article is usually a brief overview of the field for the purposes of motivating that specific published work. Perhaps a new group would extend the theory and motivation a bit because of the specific way that their project goes beyond the original project in that experimental line, but they would still be mostly re-writing the previous work done for these sections by the original group.

The technical note – So let’s just strip that type of introduction and theory section right out of the journal article and re-frame the journal article as a technical (or tech) note. My personal concept of a technical note comes from my time as a particle physics Ph.D. student where our collaboration had written a hundred or so technical notes. Most of these tech notes were written for the purpose of disseminating to the rest of the collaboration (including future collaborators) the experimental results of a study, analysis, measurement or something similar. In these “experimental” tech notes there was no need to rehash the motivation or theory for the collaboration’s full experiment since that was already common knowledge shared within the collaboration. A brief introduction/motivation was still needed for the particular experimental task being discussed in the tech note. But for the most part, an equation was introduced in the form it was going to be needed without worrying too much about the underlying physics needed to get to that equation. Sweet! Stripping the traditional introduction and theory out saves my students the task of doing something which feels like make work once a previous group has already done it.

Another point that Moskovitz and Kellog make is that the students often don’t have the perspective, time or expertise to write up the introduction (background) as you would see it in a typical journal article. It is simply too large of a task for them to tackle properly.

The wiki entry – Here’s a question you may be asking yourself: “Is anybody ever going to write up the theory and background for a given research line?” The answer is yes and it will be in the form of a wiki entry. I have a wiki set up for this course and the second major writing task each student will do is create or greatly contribute to a wiki entry for their experimental line. One student in a group will work on the tech note while the other student works on the wiki entry.

The purpose of the main wiki page for a given experimental line is two-fold. First, it is meant to be a place that a curious student can go to read about the experimental line in sufficient detail to determine if a project in that line would interest them, and with enough detail provided that they could develop a decent picture of their potential experimental tasks and the underlying physics. The second purpose is to have a living document which represents the current and collective understanding of the theory, background and experimental equipment of those students who have collaborated on a given research line. This is a collaborative document for which each participating student can take great personal ownership.

I want to try to keep the idea of writing to a sort of popular-science article level for the wiki and am going to get the students to write their wiki entries with the assumption that the reader has only our introductory physics courses under their belt. Our majors program has very little in terms of required courses so it is never safe to assume that a given student will have a certain class under their belt when they walk into the Advanced Lab. With curious students being one of the target audiences, the writing needs to be very understandable and anything being discussed needs to start from fairly basic/common principles.

The writing task will be to contribute a certain number of words to the research line’s wiki entry(ies). I haven’t nailed it down yet, but I’m thinking of something in the neighbourhood of 1000-1500 words. A student would be asked to contribute something meaningful and complete to the wiki. I might suggest to the first student that he/she write an overview of the theory and background. And then based on the conceptual difficulties that I find that group having in the weekly group meetings, I could suggest that a future student flesh out the section(s) related to those conceptual difficulties.

Final thoughts

I really like how this paper helped me tweak my already planned writing tasks for my advanced lab course. With future students being an audience that will actually have to use the written dissemination of previous students to help them build on that work, I feel like I have identified a very tangible audience for students in this course. And by re-framing the journal article as a technical note and moving background and theory to the wiki, I have managed to make sure that the students always have something new and relevant to say.

I’m really not certain how the wiki entries will evolve, but I will get lots of feedback from the students to try to help me refine and improve the wiki writing task to make it feel as productive to them as possible.


  1. These skills include a re-introduction to statistics, error analysis and curve fitting; an introduction to LabVIEW programming; and learning how to use LaTeX.

10 Comments on “More than Make-Work Writing in my Advanced Lab Course”

  1. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    “Inquiry-Based” is always a little murky, but at least I have some sense of what “Inquiry-Based Learning” should be—learning through the process of inquiring about something. But I do not what the string of words “Inquiry-Based Writing” would naturally mean (Writing by inquiring about something? Writing after inquiring about something?). But their process sounds interesting.

    I love the idea of a “tangible audience.” One of the senior faculty members here has been telling our thesis students to write the thesis for future student thesis writers—ideally, future students should be able to use the thesis as a starting point for extending their research. I like this, and I have started telling my own thesis students the same thing. Your post is making it clear that I should be figuring out (and explicitly telling my classroom students about) exactly who the audience is when students write in my classes.

    Finally, I am really looking forward to hearing how the “class-as-a-research-group” idea goes. I love it.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret,

      You’re in the exact same boat as me with your understanding of “inquiry-based” and then trying to sort out how it relates to writing.

      One thing is that once the ball is rolling and future students are actually using the written work of previous students, I think (hope) that will further solidify “future students as audience” and remove their writing for me from the equation. I am certainly going to be as explicit as possible about who the real audience is for their writing. But this first time I think it is going to be hard to get them to fully buy-in due to a lack of previous student work to build on, and the fact that this is the first time that I will really be pushing this new type of audience on them.

  2. I’ve been telling grad students and seniors in design classes for years that their target audience for their writing is never the professor, but a student who has more of less the background they had before starting the course. Future students in the course are indeed a reasonable audience.

    Establishing a wiki works very well the first year, but in subsequent years it gets harder for students to make substantial contributions—the easy stuff has been done. (You can see a 2-year wiki in which all the student work was in the wiki at .)

    Don’t forget to look at and evaluate their lab notebooks as well as their more formal writing. Students should be able to duplicate previous experiments using nothing but the lab notebook from the first run of the experiment. It may be worthwhile to set up some form of electronic lab notebook, if students are faster typing than writing by hand. Wet labs still mostly use paper (because using computers could cause serious violations of glove protocol), but some research labs are moving to electronic lab notebooks, for easier sharing within the lab group.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Last time I taught the course I definitely emphasized that their target level for their writing was a student with a similar (but not same) background to them. But I think there is a whole extra layer of accountability when a future student will actually be using the written work of previous students as background for their own work.

      I’m really not certain how the wiki will turn out. Given the scope of an individual student’s entry, I feel like there should be enough stuff to write about (theory, gory details of a part of the theory, the physics of various parts of the experimental apparatus) to allow students beyond the first and second entries to make substantial contributions. But this is my first time trying it so I am prepared to be surprised.

      Lab notebooks have typically been worth 10-20% of their grade in my courses and I give them a lot of feedback. It is interesting that in the case of the lab notebook, the tangible audience is the student himself/herself (since I also emphasize that the students should be able to duplicate their experiments with nothing but their lab notebook, lab manuals and relevant papers), along with future students in my model of research lines. I polled my previous students on the idea of electronic notebooks, but they weren’t very excited about them. I think I have to put some serious legwork into some of the options out there to find something that suits our needs well. Suggestions anybody?

  3. John Burk says:

    I wish I had you as my advanced lab instructor. The structure of this course sounds awesome, and I like the idea of forming a mini-research group with weekly group meetings. My wife, a physics major who went on to grade school in EE felt like group meetings were the most valuable part of all of grad school.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi John,

      I really have to thank Martin Madsen for this idea of a mini research group. I met him at a conference in 2009 and he was telling me about his great plan to run his advanced lab this way and lo and behold he went out and did it and it looks like his advanced lab course is fantastic. I agree with your wife. Well-functioning group meetings are amazingly productive and it’s amazing how the feedback and ideas generated in your chunk of one of these meetings can inspire you with great new ways tackle big and small problems.

      I think I am going to need at least one more go at this course after this upcoming January before I feel like it is running smoothly. But it runs often enough and it is my baby until I retire or try to force it on somebody else so I will have plenty of opportunities to get feedback from the students that have taken it, lots of time to talk to the greater Advanced Lab instructors community, as well as getting all the feedback from the blogosphere.

  4. […] It creates an authentic audience for lab notes (I got fired up about this thanks to Joss Ives’ post about it). […]

  5. […] my Advanced Laboratory course my students are just about to submit the first drafts of their papers on their first of two […]

  6. […] exams, I want to discuss the course in which I was using them. This course was my Advanced Lab (see an earlier post) where students work in pairs on roughly month-long experimental physics projects. One students is […]

  7. […] start with my definition of an Advanced Laboratory course from an earlier post: This type of course, a standard course in most physics departments, is a standalone lab course […]

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