Help your writing with this clear rubric

What goes in the introduction? Why did she tell me to write the methods  first? Why should anyone care about my results? How can I convince them? Why did I do this project anyway? An excellent rubric can help. In a way it is one piece of the inside story of any scientific study. A writing plan like this rubric and a careful experimental design make writing up your study easy, well easier.

The trick is, you should be aware of the rubric and all of its categories before you begin the study. Thinking about how you are going to explain yourself is a crucial part of research. It is our constant brake against changing methods in mid experiment unless it is essential. How will that look in the methods section is our constant question.

The use of a rubric for writing and planning is so important, I almost forgot its main use, to grade student papers. My daughter, Anna Mueller, teaches a semester in the senior thesis class in sociology at University of Memphis. She has developed a really great rubricDSC03617 for senior theses that she agreed to share. It may be sociology specific in the sense that the methods section refers to using datasets rather than to generating data, but that is a small difference from some of biology. What this rubric does is spell out what makes a great paper in much more detail than I usually use in these posts.

Here is part of the rubric from the results section: A top paper will have these attributes: “1. Statistical language is correct. 2. Makes reference to tables and figures when interpreting findings. 3. Analyses are clearly linked to the research questions. 4. Tells a story, is easy to read, and does not read like a list. 5. Includes interpretations of specific coefficients (formal interpretations).” The results section is the anchor of all the other sections. If you started with one question, but ended up answering something else, the intro must change. Ultimately, the paper is about what you did in the results section.Slide1

The other sections are equally clear and important. In some cases the literature section will be much shorter than Anna describes. But you should have read all the papers and be prepared to write a full results section, though you may not share it all in a given paper. If you don’t know all the work that went before on your topic, there is a problem.

With a rubric like this, you can simplify grading. You can learn to be more self-critical about your writing because you realize what is missing. Above all, with this clear signpost, you know the direction of mastery.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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