PS 11-86
Understanding how undergraduate thesis writing impacts learning across disciplines

Monday, August 11, 2014
Exhibit Hall, Sacramento Convention Center
Jason Dowd, Biology Department, Duke University, Durham, NC
Robert Thompson Jr., Psychology Department, Duke University, Durham, NC
Julie A. Reynolds, Biology Department, Duke University, Durham, NC

Our goal is to better understand how writing an undergraduate thesis improves critical thinking and writing skills through impacting metacognition, motivation and beliefs, and how these impacts differ as a function of student characteristics and department context. In previous work, we demonstrated that students studying biology who participate in a structured thesis-writing course alongside independent research not only develop better writing skills—expected, perhaps—but also exhibit stronger critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills than students working one-on-one with faculty. Students enrolled in the writing course achieved highest honors at graduation at almost triple the rate of other thesis writers. These results are in keeping with the notion that writing can be an effective strategy for promoting such learning outcomes, but the mechanism of effect—how writing affects learning—is largely unknown. Moreover, as previous work was limited to biology students at one university, potential differences between biology and other science-related disciplines and across student populations require further investigation.

In this study, we present results from the first year of ongoing research to address these questions. We focus on understanding the impact of capstone writing in undergraduate, STEM education on student learning outcomes. We are conducting this investigation not only in the Department of Biology at Duke University, but also in three other departments at Duke—chemistry, economics and neuroscience—and in biology departments at three other universities—Morgan State University, University of Minnesota, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The writing tasks are unified by the expectation that students are participating in research and that their writing contributes to ongoing scholarly conversations.


There is substantial evidence that motivation (one’s level of engagement with a task) and self-efficacy (beliefs regarding one’s ability to learn) significantly influence learning. Additionally, such elements as epistemological beliefs (one’s views about knowledge) and metacognition (the ability to monitor one’s own thinking) certainly play a role. Through pre-semester and post-semester surveys, as well as direct analysis of students’ written work, we are able to study the interdependencies of these elements and how they relate to students’ learning outcomes, including critical thinking and scientific reasoning exhibited in thesis writing, honors level at graduation, the presence of expert-like views and improved self-efficacy at the end of the semester.