6 Tips to Help Students Write Better Answers

“What are you Talking About?”

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What?Instruction is a two-way street. When teachers ask questions, we usually expect something in return.  An answer.  There seems to be a belief that if a student knows content, then he or she will be able to correctly answer questions about that content.  There’s a problem, however.  Knowing what you know and knowing how to communicate what you know are two different things.

One thing I’ve noticed about teachers is that we ask our students lots of questions.  We bombard our students with questions.  It’s an important part of the instructional cycle.  We need their feedback.

Questions can be placed along a spectrum.  At the far left exists the dichotomous true/ false, yes/no questions.  Move a little to the right and you find the multiple choice or fill in the blank type questions.  We call these questions “close-ended” because they require no elaboration.  At the other end of the spectrum is the open-ended question that must be answered with an extended explanation.

The outcome of an open-ended question has a multifactor determination.  Conceptual knowledge, clarity of the question, and communication skills all influence a student response.  In this article I describe 6 tips for improving student responses to open-ended questions.

In my career as a biology teacher, I’ve graded thousands of open-ended questions.  I’ve discovered that weak responses are often the result of vague or subjective language.  I assumed these responses were written by students who didn’t care or know enough to write more.  While this was probably the case for some, another theory occurred to me: Poor descriptive writing skill could manifest itself as lack of content comprehension.

As I approached students about their responses, something familiar began to emerge in their feedback.  The students figured I’d be able to interpret what they meant.  After all, they were trying to describe something I taught them.  Why wouldn’t I understand their unclear pronouns or subjective descriptors?  We both witnessed the same experiment or viewed the same diagram referenced in the question.  I guess my students had a point.  But, their answers were still wrong.

I have to confess, I’ve often given my students the benefit of the doubt.  If they were in the ballpark, I’d give them the point.  But this practice is detrimental for two reasons.  If I assume they know something and they do, then I’ve promoted mediocrity.  If I assume they know something and they don’t, then I’ve promoted ignorance.

For illustration purposes, consider a question based on the graph below.

Beak Width Graph

 Question: Describe the difference between Finch A and Finch C.

 Student A Response: Finch A has a bill width of 9.9mm and Finch C has a bill width of 9.2mm.  Finch A has a wider beak than Finch C.

Student B Response: It’s bigger than C.

The response of Student A is correct and is supported by a clear and logical interpretation of the data.  What about the response of Student B?  If the teacher assumes that “it” refers to the beak width of Finch A and that “C” refers to the bill width of Finch C, Student B is correct.  This begs the question, where do we draw the line?  Do we prop up weak responses with assumptions or do we value communication skills at the same level we value content comprehension?  I vote for the latter.

So how do we incorporate writing instruction into the science classroom?  Simple, we teach our students how to be more descriptive and then give them opportunities to practice.  It’s never too late to make your students better writers.

The idea of teaching writing strategies in a class like biology is nothing new.  The concept is called writing across the curriculum (WAC) and has been around since the 1980s.  The internet is ripe with websites offering WAC strategies.  Many of these sites are maintained by university English departments; one example is the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

If you want to see quick improvements in your students’ written responses to science questions, follow my 6 Tips to Help Students Write Better Answers. You can find a printable version at the end of the article.


 6 Tips to Help Students Write Better Answers

  1. Avoid vague pronouns.   Words like “it,” “that,” and “they” should only be used when it is obvious to which nouns they refer.  Consider the following statement, “The cell was hard to see through the microscope because it was dark.”  What does “it” refer to?  Was the room too dark?  Was the cell too dark? Was the microscope too dark? Were you working at night and it was dark outside?  A better statement is, “The microscope did not produce enough light to see the cell clearly.”
  2. Avoid subjective statements.  Subjective statements are influenced by opinion.  The following statement is subjective. “The water temperature dropped quickly.”  Quickly compared to what? A snail?  A rocket ship?   DO NOT assume others share your opinion as to the meaning of subjective words (e.g., fast, slow, loud, quiet, big, and small).  A better statement is, “The temperature decreased at a rate of 50C per minute.
  3.  Use quantitative statements whenever possible. Quantitative statements deal with measurable values and provide much greater detail.  This is opposed to qualitative statements that deal with non-measurable qualities (e.g. blue, green, hard, soft).  An example of a qualitative statement is:  “We used a rectangular piece of filter paper.”  An example of a quantitative statement is: “We used a 10cm x 5cm piece of filter paper.” The second statement is more specific.
  4.  Don’t use science jargon that you don’t understand.  Using science vocabulary correctly can really showcase your understanding of a concept.  However, resist the temptation to toss fancy science terms around if you don’t really know what they mean.  A misused science term can dramatically change the entire meaning of your response. Your best answers will state what you know using words that you know.
  5.  Answer the question.  Leaving a question blank is bad.  Writing something like “IDK” or “I can’t remember” is even worse!  If you leave the question blank, the teacher might (for a brief moment) think you didn’t see the question.  However, acknowledging the question and then indicating your unwillingness to respond is shameful.  If you don’t even try, your failure is instantaneous.  Keep it in the ballpark and give your best guess.  Do this and you retain two things, a chance of being right, and your teacher’s respect.
  6. Avoid the “all filler, no thriller” trap.  Sometimes, when faced with a blank line and blank mind, students will rewrite the question in hopes that this alone will earn a few points.  Don’t do it.  Teachers can spot that trick from a mile away.  In addition, when in doubt, don’t blabber about with transitional statements (e.g., however, nevertheless, moreover). These practices may take up extra space but they won’t give you extra points.  Consider the following example as an illustration.

Question: Compare and contrast the structural organization of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA.


Comparing and contrasting the structural organization of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA is a noble pursuit.  Without a doubt, DNA is a nucleic acid; however, surprisingly, RNA is also a nucleic acid.  Obviously, they are alike; nevertheless, they are not the same.  Furthermore, another equally important fact is that DNA is a three letter word.  Meanwhile, RNA is also a three letter word.  Although this may be true, DNA begins with the letter “D” and RNA begins with the letter “R.”  Evidently, these are not the same letters.  In conclusion, DNA and RNA are nucleic acids and, as I have shown, one may find many ways to compare and contrast them.

The example above is, of course, an exaggeration, which highlights something else to avoid, hyperbole.  Students always use hyperbole!


Article References:
The Everyday Writer
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Lynchburg College Writing Center


 An exercise to promote descriptive writing in science


  • Place an unfamiliar object on each student’s desk.
  • Tell students to write a description of the object.
  • Collect the descriptions from students.
  • Redistribute the descriptions among students, making sure no student receives the description he or she wrote.
  • Tell students to walk the classroom silently and seek to find the object being described on the paper they are holding.

This activity works best when students have little to no background knowledge about the objects they are describing.  Finding these objects may be the teacher’s biggest obstacle.  Large home improvement stores (Lowes, Home Depot) can be a great place to find many unique objects that are small and cheap.

Tips and Suggestions:

  • I found the following items to be small, cheap, and unique:
    • Plastic (PVC) pipe fittings
    • Framing hardware (joist hangers, ties, brackets)
    • Metal or plastic tube straps
  • Don’t hesitate to ask an employee to help you; it might be a welcome change to their typical routine.
  • If possible, gather collections of items that are similar in shape but vary in color, size, or material.  The more similar the items are, the stronger the descriptive writing will have to be.
  • Provide students with rulers, but let the students decide whether or not to use them.  The importance of quantitative statements in descriptive writing can be discussed during the activity wrap-up.

 Discussion Questions:

  • Was it easy or difficult to find the object using someone else’s description?  Explain your answer.
  • What was the most helpful part of the description you were given?
  • What was the least helpful part of the description you were given?

Talking Points:

  • Teachers determine what you know from the work you provide.
  • Do not assume the reader has the same background knowledge as you.  Explain everything in detail.
  • Your great ideas will never be fully appreciated unless you learn to communicate them.



Hardware Assortment (Descriptive Writing)

Hardware Assortment



Hardware on Desk (Descriptive Writing)

A Student Point of View

The student handout, along with the rest of the article can be downloaded here.


(Portions of this activity were adapted from the lesson “Guess What”
found on the website 
Biology Corner: http://www.biologycorner.com/worksheets/observation.html)


About the Author: Jeremy Conn holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and has  been teaching science in public schools since 2004.  He is the founder of Clear Biology. You can follow Jeremy at Clear Biology.


Mark your calendars for Saturday, Sept. 22 for the Fall KABT meeting.  The meeting will feature a number of presentations from KABT members and likely a presentation or two from KU faculty.  The program is mostly completed but I’m still waiting to hear back from some of the presenters.  I’ll post more information as I firm up the program.

We will start the meeting with registration at 8:30 in the Armitage center.

The first presentation at 9:00 a.m.  We will also grill brats, burgers and veggie bugers for a noon meal.  The program looks to run until about 3:30-4:00.

There is a registration fee of $15.00 to cover the field station fees and lunch.  Membership to KABT is extra.  Here’s directions (http://kufs.ku.edu/about/directions/) and a link to a google map showing the location of the field station: http://goo.gl/maps/LxiMe

Azolla anyone?

While trying to find some swamp milkweed and some monarchs out at the Baker Wetlands, I happened to notice the canal’s normal lush duckweed population was turning spotty and brown.

I said to Carol that I think that is Azolla–a water fern.  Azolla is a nitrogen fixer through a symbiotic interaction with a cyanobacteria.  I got down closer and took a look.


In the image above you can see a few duckweed fronds along with a bunch of water meal or “Wolffia” surrounding the little reddish islands of Azolla sp.  As I looked closer there was no doubt.

Azolla gets that reddish color due to anthocyanins largely in response to stress.  Can’t think of why aquatic plants might be under stress this summer. 😉  At any rate the Azolla seems to be doing better than the other two.  At least that is what I concluded after looking up the canal towards 31st Street.  There as you can see the Azolla is completely dominating the surface environment.

I’ll try to get a culture up and going and get some microscope images as well.  For now, those biology teachers in the area might want to think about getting themselves a starter culture going for their own classrooms.  It is a really neat little plant.  Just google Azolla or Azolla in the classroom or Azolla Lab, etc. to get a ton of ideas but let me share some of what you might find:

Like duckweed, Azolla makes a good model organism for population growth and for studying the factors that affect population growth.  It is a great organism to inspire students to questions they can use to direct and design their own investigations.  As an aquatic plant it has been studied as a possible candidate for bioremediation.  It has been used as a green manure in rice fields and is being investigated as a biofuel or alternative feed for livestock.  It has been implicated in some of the spectacular climate shifts during the Eocene.  And perhaps the most cool thing of all was the fern and the cyanobacterium were recently studied as an possible example of a symbiotic interactions somewhere along the path towards full incorporation like the mitochondria.   Check out the following resources for ideas if you have time.  I really think you’ll find these little plants worth the time and here they are ready for your first day of class.  I’ll see you at the Bottoms as you collect the start of your culture.