Do Communication-Intensive Methods Improve Science Learning?

In January, I blogged about the collaboration between the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and Professor David Gruber, who is teaching Environmental Science 1020.  Both last semester and this semester, students in Professor Gruber’s class were assigned to lab groups and each group produced a Digital Lab Report for one lab.  The assignments we created were specific to the different learning goals of the labs; however, all required students to use at least one (often more) form of media and incorporate writing and critical reflection into the process.  Each group goes through a series of collaborative and creative steps.  These include: free-writing soon after the lab is complete; brainstorming; research to pull in other relevant material; posting raw footage, audio, and pictures on the class blog; and creating a rough draft of a Digital Lab Report (which might be a video, a podcast of a radio show, a timeline, or a Prezi depending on the assignment).  Then, groups present their rough drafts to the class and receive feedback on the communication, critical thinking, and content components of their DLRs.  Students have the opportunity to revise their Digital Lab Reports over the next couple of weeks before presenting their final versions.  For a timeline of this process for last semester’s Mutualism lab, click here.

There are many obvious benefits to having students create Digital Lab Reports.   They compel students to collaborate and converse more about their lab work.  They encourage critical thinking, as students are expected to articulate reflections on their work through the various stages.  They are fun – students often use humor.  They improve students’ media and communication skills because students get feedback on these aspects of their creations as well.  But the one main question at the back of my mind when we embarked on this project was whether communication intensive pedagogy actually helps students to learn science.

After almost a year of observation, I feel confident answering yes. In class last Wednesday students presented their drafts.  Their introductions to their Digital Lab Reports and the DLRs themselves gave us a great deal of insight into how they were understanding (or not understanding) scientific concepts in ways traditional lab reports might never reveal.  This is partially because the DLRs require students to consider their audience and speak to their audience.  This means re-phrasing scientific language to make it accessible.  To do this, students must take in information, analyze it, and reformulate it in their own way.  Furthermore, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the external information and images they brought in as examples gave Professor Gruber insight into how they had remembered and interpreted the concepts he had explicated, as well as what they were considering “real world” connections.  The collaborative aspects of the DLRs means that students have to hash out these ideas and arrive at a shared understanding.  After each draft presentation, groups were asked questions and received feedback from their peers, Professor Gruber, and me.   Through the process of revising their labs, they will have to address the inaccuracies or gaps in their understanding of scientific concepts.  Their next round of presentation drafts will let us know if and how their scientific thinking has changed.

For me, this reveals that communication and technology-intensive methods are particularly beneficial for science courses and have great potential to enhance student learning.


  1. Catherine says:

    Hi Priya,

    Wow, this is quite incredible. Where did this model come from? Was it something Professor Gruber had wanted to do for a while? Did you design it? If so, what inspired you and how did the nitty-gritty decisions like spacing the different portions of the scaffolded project and how to evaluate the whole thing get sorted out?

    I also found myself wondering if the class blog was private or public and how it was kept from getting too unruly with so many postings from various sources like podcasts, YouTube, etc. Finally, I also found myself wondering about students without a lot of technical know-how. I know in your earlier post you said students with this knowledge taught their peers, but was this uniformly the case and did it happen during or outside class time? Also, were there any gender dynamics to that situation?

  2. Priya says:

    Thanks for your comments Catherine. I think that Prof. Gruber and Mikhail had been talking about a collaboration for a while. Prof. Gruber is a journalist as well, so he does quite a bit to make science accessible. He had a lot to do with creating this project, and Luke was key as we figuring out what to do and how to do it, as well as how to scaffold. I think there are ways we could further scaffold it to make it less daunting to less tech savvy students (yes, most of the tech happened outside of class). I think that is one issue we have to address, but it would also take more time in the class.
    I am sure there are gender dynamics, but nothing stands out as yet. Groups have all been so different, and some have been majority women, others majority men. But these are certainly things we should look out for as we proceed!

  3. Catherine says:


    Thanks for responding to my questions! Maybe you can present the work you did during a staff meeting next year…


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