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UCSB Introductory Biology Students Gain 5 Exam Points After 2 Write-to-Learn Peer Learning Activities

In Fall 2018, 281 students in an Introductory Biology course at the University of California Santa Barbara were assigned two writing-to-learn peer learning activities in Eli Review. Faculty members Mike Wilton, Eduardo Gonzalez, and Rolf Christofferson developed the prompts initially as part of the NSF-sponsored STEMWrite Institute. They then refined the prompts as part of the UCSB Write-Learn Initiative sponsored by UCSB’s Center for Innovative Teaching, Research, and Learning (; Wilton and Gonzalez taught the course.

Students completing both peer learning activities were more likely than other students to answer the relevant exam questions accurately, resulting in a 5 point gain on the final exam.

Tasks Focused on Threshold Concepts

To develop the prompts, the faculty members first identified two threshold concepts—concepts that learners must conceptually grasp to progress with their learning in the discipline, and concepts that are often difficult for students. They chose the Central Dogma of molecular biology and meioisis.

Using Eli Review, they then created highly structured writing activities for students to expand their disciplinary knowledge, and highly structured prompts to provide feedback to three other students in the course. Highly structured prompts identify the purposes, learning objectives, criteria (especially concepts and key terms), and composing processes including time investment; highly structured prompts demystify performance expectations.

Central Dogma As a peer, explain the processes of gene expression
(view prompt)
Look for and comment on problems with scientific concepts, audience and purpose, and writing
(view prompt)
Revise based on peer feedback
for bonus point.
Meiosis As a clinician,
explain to
parents genetic
results for
(view prompt)
Look for and comment on problems with scientific concepts, audience and purpose, and writing conventions
(view prompt)
for credit.

These homework tasks were assessed as credit/no credit for completion, and each was worth 0.25% of the final course grade. Majority of students completed at least one of the writing prompts, 31% chose not to complete either of the assignments, and 30% completed both prompts.  

Relevant Exam Question Performance

The threshold concepts from the writing prompts were also assessed by four exam questions.  Overall, there is a positive relationship between student performance on the final exam and their participation in the Write-Learn activities.

The relationship continues to be positive and statistically significant when the model controls for first-generation status, URM status, and cumulative science GPA (only significant variable in predicting student performance in this course as determined by linear regression). 

Among the students who completed both writing prompts more got all four questions correct (34%) in comparison to students who completed one prompt (13%) or no prompts at all (13%).  

Prompt Completion Compared to Correct Answers on Relevant Exam Questions
Students who completed both prompts correctly answered the four relevant exam questions more often than students who completed fewer writing-to-learn peer review prompts.

Furthermore, students who completed both activities (85 students, 30%) on average received 5 points more on the final exam than students who completed 1 prompt (109 students, 39%) or none of the prompts (87 students, 31%). 

Instructor Feedback

As suggested by Discipline Based Education Research (DBER), engaging with the material in class is key to achieve mastery.  The write to learn activities provide three moments of engagement: 

  1. The development of the prompt, where students verbalize their ideas and therefore encounter the missing pieces of their understanding; 
  2. the review process, where students compare their understanding with others, gauge their mastery and refine their comprehension of the topic; and 
  3. finally, during the debriefing that the instructor provides in class. 

Biologist Gonzales notes: 

“Eli Review allows for all this engaging moments to occur seamlessly and with minimum effort from the instructor. This is particularly important in a class with 280 students.”  

For biologist Wilton, students’ improved exam scores indicate that the writing-to-learn activities

contributed to students’ learning and were not just a “make work” project.

The close alignment of the task with learning outcomes and the highly structured writing and review prompts in Eli Review produced a valuable learning experience that contributed to learning gains. 

Data collected from students also suggest that they were cognizant of the role that the writing-to-learn activities played in their learning. This kind of metacognitive awareness is also an important factor in contributing to learning gains.

Lessons Learned

Based on their experiences in Fall 2018, Gonzalez and Wilton learned that the correct timing is key for these kind of activities. They noted that releasing the second prompt very close to the second midterm probably reduced the number of students completing the prompts; students prioritized studying over completing the assignment.

The positive exam outcomes observed in the answers related to the topics covered by the prompts suggests that the Writing-to-Learn activities are in fact an excellent study strategy. Talking with students about these positive results may help motivate more of them to complete the second peer learning activity.

Specific Criteria, A Little Writing, A Little Review, Big Impact

Highly-structured writing-to-learn prompts focus students’ attention on the important aspects of the threshold concept as they compose a draft. That attention is heightened when giving feedback to others’ drafts on a highly-structured peer review prompt. With focus, a little writing and a little review can impact exam performance on relevant questions.

To emphasize the scope of expectations for student work in these activities, the table below compares the 75th and 25th percentiles of word counts for drafts and feedback.

Quartile 3
478 258 736
  Quartile 1
358 131 489
Meiosis Quartile 3
368 141 500
  Quartile 1
304 56 360

400-500 words of writing and 100-300 words of feedback twice during the 10-week quarter helped students in the large lecture course practice expressing scientific concepts in their own words, and that practice paid off on the exam.


UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Innovative Teaching Research and Learning (CITRAL) is a research hub that promotes and supports inclusive teaching and learning. Faculty Director Linda Adler-Kassner coordinated the biology faculty’s participation in STEMWrite and helped shape the activities and assessment. Associate Director Maggie Safronova conducted the analyses.

About the STEMWrite Institute

The STEMwrite Institute is a three-day intensive workshop designed to: (1) acquaint participants with evidence-based research on how low-stakes writing activities can promote deep conceptual learning, and (2) engage participants in a process of collaboratively designing writing prompts, peer-response activities, and learning assessments that result in increased students learning but that also can be pragmatically implemented in large-enrollment introductory-level STEM courses.

The first two institutes, held in 2018 and 2019, focused on biology courses and worked with team composed of biology faculty members and instructional support professionals from the same university. These institutes received applications from across the US and enrolled teams from Auburn University, Stony Brook University, Syracuse University, University of California Santa Barbara, University of California San Diego, University of Kansas, University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

The STEMwrite Institute is hosted by the University of Minnesota and co-facilitated by researchers at the University of Minnesota (PIs: Leslie Schiff and Pamela Flash; Dan Emery, Matt Luskey), Duke University (PIs: Julie Reynolds and Robert Thompson), and the University of Michigan (PIs: Ginger Schultz and Anne Gere). It is funded by a 5-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s IUSE program. The third institute will be held in June 2020; applications will be available soon.

Additional Resources

In keeping with STEMWrite’s guidelines, the full text of the writing-to-learn prompts featured in this blog post are available for use with appropriate citation. Get a copy.

UCSB Introductory Biology Students Gain 5 Exam Points After 2 Write-to-Learn Peer Learning Activities was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Analytics, Example Peer Feedback Tasks, Pedagogy, Research.

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