Why Writing in Math and Science Matters
Use these math and science writing prompts to incorporate literacy across the STEM curriculum.
“I understand it but I just can’t explain it.”
“When am I ever going to use this?”
“I went home and I just forgot everything.”
As math and science teachers, we’re often on the receiving end of responses like these. Students may find the correct solution to a problem, but they can’t always explain the steps they took to get there. Sometimes, that deeper level of comprehension is just not evident.
When students explain their thinking – often by writing or talking it out in their own words – they work through complex content and concepts. They can focus their minds and demonstrate their understanding, which teachers can use to inform feedback and additional instruction.
For this reason, many standards and assessments now ask that students explain their reasoning when it comes to solving questions in math and explaining phenomena in science. Common Core math standards, for instance, state that students should be able to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”
Next Generation Science Standards, likewise, list “constructing explanations,” “engaging in argument from evidence,” and “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information” as scientific and engineering practices.
Not to mention, argumentative writing has a natural fit in math and science classes. “Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas,” Stanford University Professor Jonathan Osborne noted in a 2010 journal article. “It is debate and discussion with others that are most likely to enable new meanings to be tested by rebuttals or counter-arguments.”
By incorporating literacy into STEM classes, students can hone the skills of expressing their reasoning and evaluating claims. Writing and argumentation, however, aren’t typically taught in math and science classes. It can be tough to know how to start.
That’s why my ThinkCERCA colleagues and I have compiled a list of writing prompts that educators can use in math and science classes. As former STEM teachers who now assist elementary, middle, and high school educators with writing across the curriculum, we know that the right set of debatable questions can jumpstart a literacy initiative in any content area.
Writing Prompts for Math and Science Classes
In math and science, the quality of prompts usually depends on the specific task at hand. While we’ve supplied a mix of general and specific prompts, be sure to keep scope and topic in mind for any questions you pose to students.
Math Writing Prompts
“What’s the best way to solve a problem?”
Students are used to solving math problems. Go a step beyond the right answer, and ask them to argue for the best way to find the answer. This question prompts them to evaluate their mathematical thinking and process in addition to explaining their solution.
“Solve the problem and justify your reasoning.”
Help students practice how to explain their thinking with this prompt – which often appears on assessment questions, too.
Use relevant and debatable prompts.
Authentic, real-world questions can help students to find the meaning in math. Keep the prompts narrow, though, so that students don’t resort to non-mathematical answers as their solution.
Relevant and Debatable Prompts:
- How did adding the shot clock change NBA scoring?
- Which option is a better choice: going to a coding boot camp or obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer science?
- When should health officials quarantine infected individuals to prevent diseases from becoming epidemics?
- What actions should be taken to protect communities along the Atlantic Coast from the effects of sea level rise?
- What conclusion can you draw about the relationship between the right to vote, voter registration, and voter turnout?
Science Writing Prompts
Use these prompts to help students think through a process, evaluate multiple ideas, explain their thinking, and practice argumentation. All the prompts can be adjusted to include specific details of a lesson.
- Why does this event happen? How do you know?
- Which idea sounds more plausible? Why?
- In what ways does the data support or refute your idea?
- What might happen if the independent variable is increased in the experiment? Why do you think that?
- What new or lingering questions do you have about ___? How could we investigate it further?
Relevant and Debatable Prompts:
- Do machines have the ability to be moral?
- Should artificial intelligence be used to score student essays?
- Should professional athletes be required to undergo genetic testing in conjunction with drug testing?
- Is there enough scientific evidence to support banning GMOs from grocery stores?
- How can an individual reduce his or her personal energy use? Describe specific examples of how individuals can reduce their energy use at home.
- What challenges will climate change pose for the food supply and how are scientists helping to prepare?
- Is football too dangerous for young people to play?
- How can understanding the laws of physics help athletes improve performance?
- Should fracking be used in the United States?
By bringing argumentation and explanation into class, students hone their writing and speaking skills. They tend to grasp a topic more thoroughly, too.
When students write about their reasoning in math and science, they go through a metacognitive process to determine what they learned and assess the validity of claims. They practice the critical thinking skills that will empower them to evaluate arguments long after they leave our classrooms.
With the right tools, every teacher can be a literacy teacher. Any teacher can incorporate meaningful writing into math and science classes in order to apply or enhance content understanding. That’s why I’ll be going over the best practices and research behind cross-curricular literacy at a webinar, “The Importance of Writing in Science and Math.” Watch the webinar to learn how you can implement STEM practices through argumentative writing. Hope to see you there!