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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Writing like broccoli: Disguise the effort so students can get past hang-ups + be better writers

Updated: Mar 27

Does that title sound like a book?

Might be a good idea, but I'm already writing one for instructors (get updates here!), and I am wrangling enough other projects right now. 🤹‍♀️

For the time being, "writing like broccoli" is a metaphor that occurred to me recently. I was re-reading some advice I gave to an undergraduate student after reading their end-of-semester goals reflection. [1] The student had started with a goal of becoming a better writer, and they weren't sure they had improved. They didn't use bigger or "fancier" words, and they felt like writing was still a lot of work.

I wanted the student to see that they had done a lot of writing, and that was a good thing.

My intent, in responding to them, had been to help this student see how much writing they had done, in a class that wasn't officially about writing. Their writing had been in service to a major project, and that writing had been scaffolded to help them build good, productive writing habits without freaking out about a specific sentence or draft.

In other words, their work to become a better writer had been (a) embedded in professionally relevant coursework and (b) mostly disguised. The scaffolding I use de-emphasizes writing as the end product versus a thinking tool. It struck me that this is a bit like hiding vegetables in a smoothie or a sauce, to make veggies more palatable to someone who doesn't like them raw or readily recognizable.

What does all this have to do with you, dear reader?

Well, you might not teach a writing course (let alone a scicomm course).

But, you might really want to support your students, who likely have the same goals (or anxieties, shall we acknowledge?!?) about writing. So, I'm going to share a bit, today, about how this course is structured, and how it helps students build their skills and confidence without making writing improvement the central focus.

How you structure your course impacts whether students recognize they've gotten better at writing

I'm going to explain this by way of example. Let's take a closer look at the course this student was in.

This course has gone by a few names, but these days we call it Applied Principles of Science Communication. The course is a COM 3, which means it is a capstone communications course meant to integrate digital media, speaking, and writing competencies. At my university, all undergraduates are required to take a COM 1-3 sequence before they graduate. So, a lot of students enroll in my course because they have to take a COM 3. (And, my course is a riff off the legacy course that used to be a degree requirement for our department's students. So, I get a lot of students who still think my course is the required course. And-and: mine is an online course [2], so sometimes it's the most viable to fit into all the other responsibilities modern students juggle. Which means, a lot of students feel compelled to be in the course and otherwise might not choose it.)

Beyond some students feeling somewhat forced to take this course, nearly all of them (honestly, probably over 80%) have major hang-ups about writing. They say so in their start-of-semester goals statements.

The tricky thing is that the course I teach is NOT a writing course (though the legacy version was). Or rather, writing is not the central focus of the course. Instead, I aim to facilitate a learning experience that transcends all that coerced enrollment baggage. Overcoming any resistance they have to being in the class is key, because my ultimate goal is to get students to do A LOT of work (so that the course is actually useful to them later).

The course is designed to help the students themselves make good on the opportunity of the course: build/enhance their own communication skills in such a way that these skills become the mechanism for making their entire science degree into a transferable skill.

Ambitious, right? Lofty, even, I know. :)

But, students get onboard (and actually do experience these goals!) thanks to the structure of the course, the nature of the content, how I facilitate, etc. But above all, they get from the course what we both hope they will because they do the work themselves.

And, part of that work is loads of writing.

We're talking writing assignments every week, which include, at minimum:

  • at least two major writing projects during the semester (including brainstorming, planning, outlines, drafts, revisions, reflections, etc.),

  • a final presentation, and

  • a blog post conveying a key theme of their self-selected and self-planned project (including brainstorming, outlines, drafts, revisions, etc.).

Someday, I intend to actually quantify how much writing they do. But, I'd hazard a guess it's well over 10,000 words (~40 double-spaced pages) per student. [3]

By the end of the semester, students reflect back on their work, and they are enormously and rightly proud of themselves. They've done substantial work to connect their interests in science to something that matters to their own hometown [4]. They've done so by making rigorous connections to the science of scicomm literature [5]. And then they leverage that knowledge by practicing a wide range of evidence-based tools that are actually/also/regularly used by professional science communicators.

Here's how I get students to see that they've become better writers

Despite all that they've done, some students still don't feel like they made the kind of progress they wanted to on improving their writing skills...until I nudge them to acknowledge how much writing they've done, and how we've gone about structuring and refining that writing.

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