CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



Singapore’s 21st Century education vision of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation has set the precedence for a change in mindset and teaching paradigm in our local schools and institutions of higher learning. In this issue, we bring to you a selection of articles by various educators, both local and foreign, on their experiences with the teaching of Thinking Skills.

July 2002, Vol. 5 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting
Professor Lee Gass
Department of Zoology,
University of British Columbia, Canada
2001 CASE Canadian Professor of the Year

Science teachers often complain about their students’ thinking and writing, but often do not know what to do to improve them. Here I describe an exercise that addresses both challenges at once with first year university students in a special programme.

Early in a year-long interdisciplinary programme that includes all sciences, I assigned an article in the current primary literature [Schwenk, K. (1994). ‘Why snakes have forked tongues’. Science, 263: 1573–1577]. In the same week, we asked a simple question in tutorial: “Could a bacterium of a given size sense a concentration gradient with different parts of its body at the same time, or would it need a memory? Can gradients be that steep?” The problem is difficult and its answer is interesting. I won’t bother you with those details here; my point is about the form of the work, not its content. I asked students to write a paper on the general problems of using information to guide movement; not just by snakes or bacteria, but by any mobile animal. Other well-formed, sufficiently open and challenging problems would serve as well. Each author was also assigned first and second editorship of two other students’ papers; everyone got 3 grades for the exercise.

A secretary date-stamped the submitted papers and gave them to the first editors. They inserted comments and wrote essays about the authors’ conceptual approach, much as scientists do in reviewing papers for journals. (Most editors had to interview the authors to be clear enough to respond effectively, which was revealing.) Editors also rewrote authors’ papers for them; what they thought authors would have written had they expressed more clearly what they were thinking. Authors re-wrote their papers, second editors reviewed and rewrote them again, and then the authors produced final drafts and handed them all to me.

In one night, I commented on the evolution of 65 papers but judged the quality of only the final drafts. I judged authors’ receptiveness to insightful feedback, and commented at length if editors missed anything important or ideas were so interesting that I couldn’t resist. In both grading and commenting, I stressed the effectiveness of the author-editor collaborations in clarifying and strengthening scientific arguments, and the willingness of editors to serve authors when editing and not just themselves.

Final drafts were readable, enjoyable, and revealing, and papers became more distinct from each other as they progressed through the drafting. The exercise was a monument to editors, authors, and the community of scholarship we were building. It was an enjoyable evening’s work for me and a lot of fun and challenge for everyone. Best of all, the students demanded to do a similar exercise the next term. Science had become part of their lives, and they loved it. (They learned a lot too.)

For more on my general approach to teaching, which emphasises the development of creativity in students, please see:

  • Gass, C.L. (July 1998). ‘Teaching for Creativity in Science: An Example’. CDTLink, 2(2): 6–7. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.
  • Gass, C.L. (2002). ‘Introduction to the special feature: educating for integration and sustainability’. Conservation Ecology, 5(2): 31. [online] URL:

For a description of the special programme, please see:

  • Benbasat, J.A. and C.L. Gass. 2002. ‘Reflections on integration, interaction, and community: the Science One programme and beyond’. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 26. [online] URL:
 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Thinking Skills in Education: Ideal and Real Academic Cultures
Fostering Thinking in Large-group Teaching and Small-group Tutorials
Nurturing Thinking Skills
An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting