Using Expressive Writing To Keep Students Grounded and Engaged in Science Courses

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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, such activities rarely find a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) — information-rich disciplines with skills and concepts that build on one another.

The thought of bringing expressive writing into STEM 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.”

Courtesy of Khanh Tran (Courtesy of Khanh Tran)

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? Name the animal 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 in the heart,” Tran says. The concept of a “heart check” was born. Tran wondered if this sort of activity — a brief time to consider values and purpose — could help first-generation students persist and succeed in STEM majors.

Tran shared his thinking with Imani Davis, an African-American classmate studying biology and ethnic studies. The idea resonated. “I never had someone in the sciences reflect who I was as a person,” Davis says. She began to wonder what if students were asked "Who is someone in the sciences you connect with or reflects the background you’re a part of?”

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Davis and Tran brought the idea to chemistry professor Alegra Eroy-Reveles, who helped them craft journaling questions for a peer-led program, known as Supplemental Instruction (SI), aimed at supporting students in large-lecture STEM courses. SI classes are open to all but particularly helpful for first-generation college students whose parents didn’t attend college, and students from ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM. The group conducted trial runs of the journaling in SI biology, chemistry and physics classes last spring.

SFSU students Isela Hernandez and Imani Davis with chemistry professor Alegra Eroy-Reveles presenting their journaling project at a conference last fall. (Courtesy of Alegra Eroy-Reveles)

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?”

Supplemental Instruction journal entry by SFSU student Mireya Arreguin. (Courtesy of Mireya Arreguin)

If students didn’t feel like sharing, the instructors jumped in. “We answered the questions as well,” says Davis. “We didn’t want there to be a divide, like I’m the teacher and you’re the student. We were all peers.”

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 in-class journaling. Did it help their learning? Did it help them understand why they’re going to college?

“Overwhelmingly yes,” says Eroy-Reveles. “They want to do more.”

Some students said they wished their instructors had read what they’d written and given feedback week to week, like an interactive diary.

Reading through student responses, Eroy-Reveles and the team assumed the benefits of journaling would fall largely in the realm of self-affirmation. But actually less than a fifth of participants mentioned feeling affirmed. More than 85 percent noted gains from cognitive processing — taking the time to think deeply about themselves, “to look at their life, think about stress levels," says Eroy-Reveles. "That’s what led to greater meaning.”

Supplemental Instruction journal entry by SFSU student Jesus Barragan. (Courtesy of Jesus Barragan)

This semester, about 320 students -- 16 of 23 SI classes (biology, chemistry, physics, math) -- are doing the in-class journaling. With this expanded participation, the team 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.

The self-reflection and journaling component helps students realize their sense of purpose, but it’s the peer-to-peer dialogue that brings affirmation.

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“It provides hope and healing,” Tran says.

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