Luscombe uses peer review to teach writing to undergraduates

The only writing assignment Christine Luscombe had to complete as a chemistry major at the University of Cambridge was the 30-page report she wrote for her senior project.


“Although I successfully completed this task and was awarded a prize, it was still daunting,” Luscombe said. “I had never been exposed to such a situation.


” Now an assistant professor in MSE, Luscombe is poised to help undergraduates at the UW who face the same challenge.

Christine Luscombe

Luscombe is using part of the $495,000 CAREER Award she received from the National Science Foundation in early 2008 to develop a writing program for seniors in her “Introduction to Polymer Science and Engineering” class.


“The motivation to develop such a system is driven from my own personal experience,” Luscombe said. “As an undergraduate student, I was never taught how to write a scientific report, a paper for publication, nor a proposal.”


Luscombe discovered that seniors in her fall 2006 “Introduction to Polymer Science and Engineering” were in the same boat when she asked them to write a report on the polymer of their choice. Many of the students were unable to write a succinct report, and some even copied straight from Wikipedia, a encyclopedia Web site where the general public can submit articles and details often go unchecked.

“We, as faculty members, often mistakenly assume that our students already possess the necessary writing skills needed to produce a scientific report,” Luscombe said. Luscombe recalled how she felt when she joined the UW’s faculty in 2006 and had to write research proposals for the first time. “In general, I have acquired writing skills only when needed, and because of this, it still remains an unpleasant task,” she said.


In this regard, students and professors have something in common. “Most of us are never given any formal training for writing papers, proposals, and reports, but are expected to be able to do so,” Luscombe said.

Luscombe’s program, which she tested on graduate students in her spring 2008 “Organic Electronic and Photonic Materials” course, is modeled after the peer review process that professors are subject to after submitting papers for academic publications.


Luscombe will test her new program again on graduate students in spring 2009. Then, in fall 2009, she will roll it out for undergraduates for the first time in her “Introduction to Polymer Science and Engineering” course.


During the first two weeks, Luscombe will ask her students to identify a polymer to investigate. Then, she will ensure that the polymers are appropriate to write about and that no two students have chosen the same topic. She’ll also introduce students to the American Chemical Society’s guidelines for authors, the same set of rules that her peers use in academia.


Students will have four weeks to write a first draft. Luscombe will assign the students weekly tasks to break the writing process into smaller chunks so they don’t leave completing their papers until the last minute. Once the students submit their drafts, Luscombe will distribute each paper to two other members of the class who will act as anonymous reviewers.

“The students will be encouraged to write thoughtful reviews, stating at least one positive comment about the paper as well as comments about how the paper can be improved,” Luscombe said. “They will also be advised not to write personal comments to maintain the anonymity of the process.”

Christine Luscombe


Luscombe said students often become scientists and engineers because they don’t enjoy writing. They are in for a surprise when they join the workforce, she said, since “it has been estimated that a typical scientist will spend as much as one-third of their day writing.” The new program was developed with assistance from the UW’s Engineering Writing Center and Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching. To prepare herself to teach writing, Luscombe also attended a workshop entitled “Doing Writing Differently: How the Right Kinds of Writing Assignments Can Create More Active, Engaged, and Happy Students.”“Although this educational program focuses on undergraduate education, it will have an effect beyond the UW setting,” Luscombe said. “It will prepare students for their future careers in industry or academia.”

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