Writing Science: Improving Understanding and Communication Skills with the “Unessay”

Professionals in natural resources are increasingly engaging with the public (Novacek 2008), and students are often expected to complete their undergraduate degree with the skills required to communicate with broad, diverse audiences (Henke and Krausman 2017). These skills, however, are often overlooked in classrooms in favor of a curriculum more focused on technical concepts. In a sophomore‐level wildlife course at the University of Wyoming, two of the authors (RJ and KM) employed a relatively unconventional teaching approach (the option of an unessay) to allow students to engage with course materials in a way that would allow them to practice communication skills for their respective careers. The unessay submissions far exceeded expectations and demonstrated a high level of engagement with course material. Although one semester with one course limits the conclusions we can draw, the students' work suggests that the unessay can be a powerful exercise for developing both understanding and communication skills in a wildlife biology class.

The unessay is an assignment that gives students freedom to decide what elements of a prompt they want to focus on and the specific ways they want to accomplish these goals (Sullivan 2015, O'Donnell 2018). For example, students can write a poem, draw a comic, or compose a song about some aspect of the material. Any sort of submission can work, so long as the message is communicated effectively and is in line with the content and ideas presented in the course. Although the unessay was originally used in the humanities, the exercise can be readily adapted for science classrooms (Aycock et al. 2019).

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