Writing A Book Synopsis for Oceanography

Mary Anne Holmes, University of Nebraska at Lincoln
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Students read popular science books and write a synopsis of the book, linking the topic(s) covered in the book with those covered in class. This activity is designed for a large geoscience lecture course to aid students in improving their understanding of the topics we cover. In addition, students tend to get lost in large science courses; they may arrive with misconceptions about science and their ability to perform well in a science course. This assignment allows students to do some extra work and improve their grades. It presents science as an intriguing story while emphasizing topics covered in class. The intended outcome is to deepen student understanding of specific topics and to lower students' anxiety about their ability to "do science".

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Introductory undergraduate large- or small-lecture course. This activity is voluntary (for extra credit) in large classes (non-majors) and required in small classes (non-majors or majors).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students will benefit the most from this activity by reading the book before, during or after the topic is covered in the course; their writing will be best after the topic is covered in the course.

How the activity is situated in the course

These are stand-alone exercises.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The students may read three to four popular science books that cover topics in oceanography (and physical geology): The Longitude, by Dava Sobel, to deepen students' understanding of longitude and how difficult it was for humans to nail down; Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, to deepen students' understanding of the role fishing has played in ocean discovery and the perils of over-fishing; The Two-Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley, to deepen students' understanding of climate change, of the data that led to our current understanding of climate change and how the data were collected and analyzed.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students analyze new information from the books and synthesize it with material covered in class.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students can enhance their writing skills if they hand the synopsis in early and re-write it.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are asked to read instructor-selected popular science books and write a synopsis of the book that relates the book topic to topics discussed in class. In large lecture courses, this is an extra credit assignment; few students do this assignment in this context (~25%). For small courses, particularly majors in the introductory class, this is a required assignment.

If the student hands in the synopsis in a timely fashion, the instructor will read it, make suggestions for improvement, and encourage the student to re-write.

The purpose of this assignment for large lecture courses is two-fold: it should deepen students' understanding of the topics covered in the books; it should help reduce student anxiety over test-taking in a science course and science in general. For text-taking anxiety, students have the opportunity to improve their grades through writing rather than taking an exam; for science anxiety in general, the books are selected to provide a fun as well as useful read of how science is done.

A set of instructions and a grading rubric are supplied with Supporting Materials.
Handout for Students incl Instructions and Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB May28 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

For small majors class, the student's grades on the writing assignments correlate with their grade on exams, suggesting that the reading/writing assignment does deepen their understanding of topics covered in class. In contrast, with data from only one semester of a large lecture course, students who did the reading and writing assignment had poorer exam grades than students who did not. More data are needed; no data currently exist for effect on student anxiety, but data collection for both effects is underway.

Two factors may have contributed to these initial negative results for the large course: 1) having the assignment as an extra credit effects a selection process. Anecdotally, students who were anxious about their grades undertook this assignment; 2) There was a lack of explicit instruction on what was expected for the writing assignment. Many students wrote on irrelevancies such as the author's writing style and whether they, the student, enjoyed reading the book. Nearly all students chose not to re-write; their first expositions read like first drafts. The activity has been re-written with more explicit student instruction and inclusion of a grading rubric. The instructions now provide students with guiding questions to consider as they read and think about writing their synopsis.


A rubric is supplied for the students demonstrating how the writing assignment is graded. For large lecture courses where this is an extra credit assignment, students earn up to 3 points on their final grade for a well-written synopsis that demonstrates understanding of the reading and connection of the topic to course topic(s).

For small majors classes, three synopses count for 15% of the final course grade. The rubric can be adjusted accordingly.

References and Resources