This semester, the assignment for 'Energy and Technology' required students to write an article for a non-specialist audience. To encourage students to edit their own work they edited each other's articles in tutorials. A two stage process was used–the first edit focused on content, the second on style. It was the former that raised the dilemma.
In the editing process, students were acting as non-specialist readers. If the material they read was technical and obscure, then confident students reported their difficulty. Less confident students were impressed by the author's knowledge, assumed that the lack of understanding was their problem and so often gave favourable comments.
The dilemma I face is how to improve the quality of the feedback given by students to each other at the first edit.
There is a great need for scientists to communicate not only with each other but with the wider public. This is fed by altruism and self interest. The community, aware of the increased role played by science and technology, requires more reliable information for decision making. The same community also provides funding for research and expects accountability. Good communication skills are essential in both these endeavours.
Educational research has demonstrated tertiary students' lack of good learning skills and the need to specifically teach these. ( Chalmers and Fuller, 1995). All the units within our technology studies course have a skills component. The first year unit at the centre of this dilemma concerns energy and technology and includes the skill of writing about technical matters for non specialist audiences.
To maintain a balance between breadth and depth, the students are given the opportunity to explore one of six technologies in detail. This technology provides the context for the two assignments. The first assignment task is to give a tutorial presentation on this technology; the second assignment task is to write an article appropriate for a general audience. Both these tasks require students to communicate technical material to an interested but non specialist audience.
In parallel with their own assignment writing, students had the opportunity to read and edit material on two other topics written by their fellow students. They all agreed that editing someone else's work was easier than editing their own work. In addition most students found the comments they received helped them to edit their own work. In retrospect I provided insufficient guidance at this stage. The question I failed to address sufficiently was 'At what point does simplification become trivialisation?'.
The final stage of the editing process focussed on style. This proceeded smoothly and raised the quality of the final submissions.
Student assignments broadly fell into three categories as indicated in the diagram below. Category a) contained articles which were technical and obscure. When these articles were reviewed by confident students this difficulty was reported. Less confident students were impressed by the author's knowledge, assumed that the lack of understanding was their problem and so often gave favourable comments. In category b) the articles were easy to read but lacked substance, any complexity on conflict was ignored. They were quick to read but it was not easy for the editors to distinguish such articles from those in group c), so they attracted limited criticism. In category c) the articles were clear, easy to read, informative and thought provoking. There were few in this category at the first draft stage. My aim is to move all students towards c).
One of the difficulties in moving students from a) to c) is that we are defying the unspoken rules of the science game - a game that identifies difficult and obscure as clever and promotes mathematics as the ultimate language of science. In this context, students are being asked to perform an act of translation from a language with high status to one of lower status. It is not surprising that a few students resist this process both as writers and editors.
The most valuable intervention point is probably the first edit. By this stage students have some first hand experience of the difficulties and the task of editing each others work is easier than editing their own. The key question then for me is:
How can I improve the quality of the feedback given by students to each other when editing for content?Our discussion in this dilemma session will use this as a starting point.
Chalmers, Denise and Fuller, Richard (1995). Teaching for learning at University: Theory and practice. Perth: Edith Cowan University.
|Please cite as: Leggett. M. (1997). How can students be encouraged to develop appropriate communication skills for communicating scientific principles to non technical audiences? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p194-196. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/leggett.html|