NSF Grant for the Duke Reader Project

Reader Project Director, Cary Moskovitz, was awarded a 3-year National Science Foundation Grant for the Reader Project.


The STEM education community has long been interested in finding ways to improve the scientific and technical writing skills of undergraduates. Regardless of the general approach, an essential feature of any writing pedagogy is substantive feedback on student writing. Additionally, research suggests that courses which provide such feedback increase student engagement with course material. However, undergraduate STEM curricula generally offer few occasions for such feedback. Most student writing occurs in settings in which it is impractical for instructors to give individualized attention to each student’s paper, or in labs taught by graduate student teaching assistants who are novice scientific writers themselves.

This project investigates a new approach to providing students with feedback on a course writing project by capitalizing on an otherwise untapped educational resource: university alumni and employees with scientific or technical backgrounds who normally play no direct role in the institution’s educational mission. In this approach, students are paired with alumni or employee volunteers whose backgrounds make them suitable readers for a particular STEM writing assignment. These pairs are guided through a series of interactions (in person or via IT) through which students get feedback on their work-in-progress from rough drafts through final polishing. Volunteers are given instruction in how to give “reader-based” feedback (describing their reactions to the drafts as a user of the text) rather than focusing on editing or judging the text. Preliminary investigations of this approach indicate that many alumni and employees are eager and qualified to help their institution’s undergraduates develop their scientific writing and reasoning skills, and that students benefit from such interaction.

Under this grant, eight different STEM courses are included in the project for at least two semesters each; formative assessment data from each semester is used in making revisions for subsequent terms. Course instructors participate in training workshops, consult with project personnel to develop assignments and protocols tailored to their particular course, and participate in assessment activities. Primary objectives include (1) identifying the types of STEM courses for which this approach is most likely to be successful and developing protocols and volunteer reader pools appropriate for those settings, (2) improving student attitudes toward and understanding of scientific/technical writing, (3) helping students develop mature writing processes that include drafting and making use of feedback, (4) increasing student engagement in STEM writing assignments. Evaluation includes on-line surveys of student and volunteer participants, interviews with faculty members, and focus group conversations with student, volunteer and faculty participants.

Intellectual Merit: This project investigates an approach to undergraduate writing instruction in STEM that challenges traditional assumptions about who should/might give students feedback on their written work. The approach acknowledges the realities of labor in STEM teaching contexts by offering students opportunities to interact with experienced STEM professionals who have the time and inclination to give them substantive feedback on their writing based on real-world experience. The project also provides guidance for faculty in developing writing assignments that ask students to produce common types of scientific or technical writing intended for an audience beyond the classroom.

Broader Impacts: This project influences the kinds of writing assigned in STEM courses and the type and amount of feedback students receive on that writing in at least eight different courses. Although the approach is developed at a single institution, it is replicable; in fact, part of this investigation will involve identifying ways to simplify and/or automate procedures needed to facilitate effective student-reader interactions. Dissemination will include online venues such as the SERC web server, publication in writing studies, science education and education columns in STEM discipline journals, and conferences in writing studies, science education, and university administration.