Scientific Reasoning Assignment

Mary Walczak, Chemistry Department, St. Olaf College
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The introductory-level Scientific Reasoning Assignments ask students to write a one-page paper outlining their solution to a problem that arises from the content material in the course. The papers are to include four parts: (a) a diagram (usually a graph, but not always), (b) a conclusion or solution statement for the problem, (c) an explanation of the approach taken to solve the problem, and (d) a discussion of shortcomings of the solution or approach. The five assignments of this form carried out over the course of a semester included the content areas of Lewis Structures, G-T diagrams, automobile fuels, batteries, and ozone depletion mechanisms.

The papers are intended to give students opportunities to practice locating appropriate sources (and citing them properly), writing effectively to explain scientific data or ideas to others, and to illustrate their scientific ideas using diagrams or graphs.

Learning Goals

  • Using effective research strategies to locate appropriate sources
  • Writing effectively
  • Conveying an argument visually (posters, powerpoints, etc.)

Context for Use

These assignments were used in a second semester introductory level chemistry course (Chem 126: Energies and Rates of Chemical Reactions). Five assignments were spaced fairly evenly throughout the semester. The course section was 50 students. The assignments were done out of class with only brief mention during class sessions. Some familiarity and experience in finding, evaluating and citing information sources should either be a pre-requisite for the assignments or designed into the first few assignments.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Scientific Reasoning Assignments are described in one- to two-page handouts. The overall structure of the handout includes a rationale for the assignment (why we are doing this), the components expected in the written paper (diagram, conclusion, explanation, discussion of shortcomings), and a problem statement. In the first activity of the semester, an example paper is provided. A grading rubric for each assignment is also provided to students.
Scientific Reasoning Assigment about Lewis Structures (Microsoft Word 57kB Jun16 10)
Scientific Reasoning Assignment for E85 vs. Gasoline (Microsoft Word 64kB Jun16 10)
Scientific Reasoning Assignment for GT Graphs and Weather (Microsoft Word 38kB Jun16 10)
Scientific Reasoning Assignment for Batteries (Microsoft Word 60kB Jun16 10)
Scientific Reasoning Assignment for Ozone Depletion (Microsoft Word 43kB Jun16 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Many students had difficulty properly citing sources in the style appropriate to the discipline of chemistry. Some guidance and/or review on this topic would be helpful.


I developed a rubric to assess the student's abilities in each of several areas for each assignment. I used this rubric to grade the papers and to provide students feedback on areas in which they needed to focus for subsequent assignments. Most students were able to demonstrate "exemplary" skills in the diagram and overall writing categories. Depending on the assignment, students demonstrated less well-developed skills in the other areas of the rubric, especially in identifying shortcomings of the approach taken.
Rubric for Lewis Structure Assignment (Microsoft Word 44kB Jun16 10)
Rubric for E85 vs Gasoline Assignment (Microsoft Word 73kB Jun16 10)
Rubric for GT Graphs and Weather Assignment (Microsoft Word 44kB Jun17 10)
Rubric for Batteries Assignment (Microsoft Word 46kB Jun17 10)
Rubric for Ozone Depletion Assignment (Microsoft Word 51kB Jun17 10)

References and Resources