Grammar and syntax make their MOOC debut in course taught by Stanford scientist

Stanford medical faculty member Kristin Sainani launches an online science-writing class.

Courtesy of Kristin Sainani Kristin Sainani

Kristin Sainani is teaching her 'Writing in the Sciences' course online for the first time this fall.

Here's a really bad sentence: "This paper provides a review of the basic tenets of cancer biology study design, using as examples studies that illustrate the methodologic challenges or that demonstrate successful solutions to the difficulties inherent in biological research."

Kristin Sainani – epidemiologist, statistician and writer – teaches scientists not to write like that. She does it in a classroom at Stanford's School of Medicine, and, since late September, she does it online, reaching thousands of scientists and would-be scientists who find cell structure way easier to master than sentence structure.

On a recent day in early October, Sainani and three of her former students videotaped part of the last unit. The trio of doctors – Kit Delgado, Eran Bendavid and Crystal Smith-Spangler – had all written research articles that attracted attention from the mainstream media. Sainani wanted them to give her students tips on how to convey complex scientific concepts to reporters and the general public. They agreed that using the university or medical school press office is crucial, as is practicing a script, figuring out crucial takeaway points and conducting mock interviews.

From a seed grant to a MOOC

Sainani's journey to the world of lights and cameras began in the summer when she received a seed grant from the office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning. She knew she wanted to reach more students than had been able to follow her classes in the past, including those who found her PowerPoint slides and YouTube videos. But she wasn't sure how to go about it.

"I get lots of email requests from around the world," she said as she began planning the class. "People find me. I always liked the idea of making good materials useful to lots of people. Why shouldn't everyone have access? It's more practical."

The seed grant helped pay for technical assistance for transforming her traditional course and slides into a massive open online course (MOOC). Next she had to decide which platform would host her course. She weighed options for how to present the course online. For example, should students work in teams? Would they grade each other's work? Would they be willing to share unpublished scientific research?

By August she was experimenting in various recording studios and seeking advice from Stanford Online. She considered Stanford's homegrown platforms (Venture Lab and Class2Go), the School of Medicine itself (whose educational technology team helps faculty innovate in their teaching) and Coursera, where she ended up. Coursera was founded by two Stanford computer scientists currently on leave and has attracted 33 universities so far.

The fall course was to be a dual project: on one hand, a "flipped" classroom for her regular Stanford students, who will watch recorded lectures on their own time and spend class time on interactive, hands-on work; on the other, an opportunity for people around the country – or even beyond, if English was the language they used professionally. Non-scientists as well as specialists could benefit from the first half of the course, because all scholars need to understand that it's not just what you know, but how you say it that counts.

Cutting the clutter

Like many scientists, Sainani, a clinical assistant professor of health research and policy, began her professional life thinking that if prose wasn't jargony and turgid, it wasn't serious. Not until she studied in the science-writing program at the University of California-Santa Cruz, she said, did she realize, "Hey, I can say what I actually mean!"

One of the early modules of her class is called "Cut the Clutter," where she displays one bad sentence after another, then red-pencils her way to concision and clarity. Sainani has an engaging, friendly voice, and because she has slashed and burned her way through bad prose many times, she sounds natural as she explains, for example, that "successful solutions" is redundant.

Once Sainani opted for Coursera, she began recording weekly in the company's Mountain View studio. She would spend several hours at a time going through all the modules of each unit (eight units in all, divided into around six modules apiece), then upload the recordings onto a flash drive, which she would take to video editor Mike McAuliffe at the medical school's Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

Each unit begins with her image. She reintroduces herself to the students and reminds them of what they learned the previous week. Then the image disappears, and text takes over.

In the later units, students will be asked to assess each other's writing and editing. Coursera can accommodate that function with some constraints, she said, so students will edit by simply underlining, striking words or using boldface in a text box. Assignments will consist of up to six paragraphs, and each student will edit the work of five of their peers for succinctness, clarity and enjoyment.

By mid-September, Sainani was taping Unit 5, "The Original Manuscript." Recording that day at Coursera started with a few glitches – an unexpected Microsoft prompt on the screen, and a few minutes later a Skype reminder – that necessitated starting over. Once that was straightened out, she reminded students that if writing is daunting, they should keep their objectives modest and set goals they can actually accomplish.

Unit 5 marks the point where she leaves non-scientists behind. It covers all the components of a scientific paper: tables and figures, results, methods, introduction, discussion and abstract. She explains the point of a good table by showing a bad table, in this case comparing good witches and bad witches (her young daughter's current interest) using a series of entirely irrelevant criteria (smoker, employment status, age, blood pressure) and absurd numbers (age taken out several decimal points, for example).

She also displays illustrations from scientific publications obtained from the open-source, peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, including scatter plot figures, her favorite.

"I love scatter plots because they show all the data, the good and the bad," she tells her students. "They're airing your dirty laundry a bit," but they are both useful and honest, she says.

Writing in the Sciences launched Sept. 25, with nearly 30,000 signed up, though, as in all online classes, the number of students who watch the videos and do the homework drops off sharply. About 11,000 filled out the student survey the first week, a good indicator of how many are actually taking the class. Of those, around one-third are graduate students and one-quarter are scientists or engineers.

Sainani's promotional video for Coursera shows her in front of shelves and shelves of scientific journals full of presumably boring prose. Her mission, she told prospective students, was to provide them with the training – and the tricks – to enable scientific literature to change. And by the end of the class, when they'll be watching Sainani interview her former students about how to deal with the media, perhaps they themselves will be ready to go forth and publish.

Lisa Lapin, University Communications: (650) 725-8396,