Science writing heuristic

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  • The science writing heuristic (SWH) is a writing-to-learn model for learning from laboratory activities in secondary science and can be used by teachers as a framework from which to design classroom activities.
  • "The science writing heuristic (SWH) is a tool to guide both teachers and students in productive activities for negotiating meaning about laboratory investigations." (Keys et al., 1999: 1067).

The science writing heuristic

The Science Writing Heuristic has been developed by Carolyn Keys, Brian Hand, Vaughan Prain and Susan Collins (Keys et al, 1999). This " ... heuristic is intended to help students construct understanding during practical work. Students are required to produce written explanations of the processes involved in the activity through completion of a template, with particular emphasis placed on claims, evidence and reflection" (Hand et al. 2002: 20).

"There is evidence that use of the science writing heuristic facilitated students to generate meaning from data, make connections among procedures, data, evidence, and claims, and engage in metacognition. Students' vague understandings of the nature of science at the beginning of the study were modified to more complex, rich, and specific understandings." (Keys 1999:1065).

The heuristic is a instructional design model consisting of 2 parts: one for the teacher actions and for student activities. Keys et. al, (1999:1067-1069) and also Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20-22) provide the following definitions (from which the lists are quoted entirely).

Teacher template component

(The Science Writing Heuristic, Part I)

This template contains a series of suggested activities to involve students in meaninful learning activitivies. More precisely, we can defined it as socio-constructivist pedagogical scenario to promote laboratory understanding. Teacher's are of course encouraged to adapt it to their local context.

  1. Exploration of pre-instruction understanding through individual or group concept mapping.
  2. Pre-laboratory activities, including informal writing, making observations, brainstorming, and posing questions.
  3. Participation in laboratory activity.
  4. Negotiation phase I - writing personal meanings for laboratory activity. (For example, writing journals.)
  5. Negotiation phase II - sharing and comparing data interpretations in small groups. (For example, making group charts.)
  6. Negotiation phase III - comparing science ideas to textbooks for other printed resources. (For example, writing group notes in response to focus questions.)
  7. Negotiation phase IV - individual reflection and writing. (For example, creating a presentation such as a poster or report for a larger audience.)
  8. Exploration of post-instruction understanding through concept mapping.

Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20)

The student compontent

(The Science Writing Heuristic, Part II)

In order to scaffold student's knowledge construction process, they are asked to complete a number of questions within a template format including the focus of their question, their claims and their evidence. These written explanations are also based on peer discussion and text reviews. Therefore students can use the templates as individuals but also in small groups. Again, the heuristic may be used as is or be tailored by the teacher to specific investigations.

  1. Beginning ideas - What are my questions?
  2. Tests - What did I do?
  3. Observations - What did I see?
  4. Claims - What can I claim?
  5. Evidence - How do I know?Why am I making these claims?
  6. Reading - How do my ideas compare with other ideas?
  7. Reflection - How have my ideas changed?0

Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:21)


  • Hand Brian, Vaughan Prain and Carolyn Wallace, (2002). Influences of Writing Tasks on Students' Answers to Recall and Higher-Level Test Questions, Research in Science Education 32, 19-34.
  • Keys Carolyn W., Brian Hand, Vaughn Prain, Susan Collins, (1999). Using the Science Writing Heuristic as a Tool for Learning from Laboratory Investigations in Secondary Science, Journal Of Research In Science Teaching, 36 (10) 1065-1084. [1]
  • Keys Carolyn W. (1997). Revitalizing instruction in scientific genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing to learn in science, Science Education, 83 (2), 115 - 130.