If you’ve been teaching forensic science for a few years it is no surprise to you that your average students are much more motivated to learn in a forensic science class than most other classes. Curiosity about interesting cases and the crazy things people do to attempt to get away with crime tend to keep even students who are very bored with high school interested. This motivation can be applied to any skill you would like your students to improve. Reading is the assignment I still, after eighteen years of teaching, find to be the most challenging to get students to actually do. Second on that list is writing.

I do assign reading and have many sneaky ways that I attempt to get students to do it, but I’ll save that secret for another article. However, there are a number of ways that you can succeed in getting students to write. After surveying a few forensic science teachers about their writing assignments, I will share some suggestions for achieving student participation.

For those of us who have been teaching for a while, requiring students to write more than a sentence or two can be pretty torturous. Not only do students dislike writing, many have had little practice or success in writing. There are many ways you can choose to have students participate in writing: from the simple set of questions at the end of an assignment for which you require complete sentence answers, to the four to five page paper assignments.

Whether you teach in Alaska or New Mexico, at a small or large school, or in a public or private school, you can successfully include writing in your classwork or assignments. The opportunity to be creative is often a great motivator for students. Asking them to write up how they solved a crime doesn’t necessarily require them to write a four page paper. It can be as simple as requiring them to explain in writing how the evidence they examined in a lab can link a suspect to a crime scene or victim. Adding points for creativity to that assignment allows students to not only use their critical thinking skills, it can give them an opportunity to stretch their writing skills.

Of course, writing a sentence is easier than a paragraph or a paper. The best suggestion I can make about including writing in your lessons is to introduce writing in small assignments and work up to large assignments over the semester or year of the course. Including questions in labs for which you require complete sentences for the answer is a good way to start them writing. Asking them to explain why they think this evidence can be linked to a specific person, and requiring them to write in complete sentences can help a lot of students begin to write. Especially if you have that type of question on every lab so they get the idea that you are not going to give up.

Including short answer questions for which you require complete sentences for the answer is another good way to get them writing. I know some of you will see this as additional work since they do take more time to grade than a multiple choice question. It is well worth the time and effort to just add one well worded question about a key topic that requires your students to write an answer you can grade for content, thoroughness, and clarity. You can make this task more interesting for your students by including crime scene information in the question. For example you could use the prompt, “Explain a technique that could be used to examine a note collected from a crime scene in order to identify the source of the note.” Certainly more interesting than, “What is thin-layer chromatography and how is it used?” or “What is handwriting comparison and how is it done?” The much more open-ended prompt also allows you to get a good idea of how much of the topic the students actually learned. It is much easier to memorize the answer to the second two questions long enough to take and successfully complete a one time test than it is to weigh the concepts taught and determine which ones apply to the situation described in the prompt.

There are many ways you can include writing in the everyday activities of your class. Asking the students to write a paper explaining what they learned from a class speaker or a field trip, a summary of the crime scene activity they completed, to present their written opinion of the weight direct and indirect evidence should have in court, or to write a summary of a forensic science journal article are just a few examples of ways teachers are including writing in their forensic science courses.

There are, of course, some more traditional ways to get them to write. A paper that summarizes TV shows that include forensic science watched in class or outside of class is not the type of topic students are used to writing about. Requiring them to read books like Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet or Roach’s Stiff: The Secret Life of Human Cadavers, then write a paper on the book can be a very traditional assignment using what most students taking a forensic science course would consider to be a lot more interesting than Jane Eyre or Romeo and Juliet. Even an assignment that could be the traditional type can be made a little more interesting for the student, and a lot more objective for those who are not strong in those writing skills. Requiring the students to include comparison of the forensics in the book to current forensic science can give the students a focus for their reading and writing.

Speaking of focusing the assignment, another tip is to make a scoring guide for any assignment that has a significant amount of writing. The purpose of the scoring guide should be to make the assignment requirements clear for the students and easy for you to grade. I really don’t care for rubrics. Even the best ones seem to leave too much to the discretion of the grader. When I have used them I find I have to compare student’s rubric grades to make sure that I give two students who made the same mistake the same points. If you have this same issue with rubrics you might want to use the method I use. I make up a guide that lists each requirement for the assignment and and lists the points available for each requirement. For example, if they are required to explain how chain of custody would change the course of a case for the 1950s, I list “chain of custody” as a bullet point in the scoring guide and tell them how many points it is worth. If I think they may need more guidance with this I might break down the guide even further. The example below is a section from an assignment I give in my Forensic Science ACC course


Scoring Guide Famous Case Paper


Evidence in the case today

Describes evidence that would not have been looked for then but would now ____ 3 pts

Describes digital evidence and how it might be used now ____ 3 pts

Describes how databases might be used now ____ 3pts


My goal in developing the scoring guide is to make it easy for me to grade objectively. If it’s there and well done they get all the points. If it’s not well done they get partial. If it’s missing they get a zero. You might think these scoring guides make it too easy for students to get an A. Everything required is right there for them to follow when putting together the paper or writing the summary for the lab. It has been my experience that students do have more success with writing a good paper with this type of guide but I still get the full gamut of grades from F to A when I use them.

If your school or the state you teach in is anything like mine, assigning more writing in your classroom will be a frequent requirement. I hope some of these ideas will come in handy to help you help your students become better writers. It will also be very useful to them if they pursue a career in any area of forensics as report writing is a key component of any job in this field. The key to getting even the most turned-off student to participate is getting them interested and engaged which will spur them to write.






Getting Your Students To Write (and like it)

by Jeanette Hencken