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2013 March 21

Student writing

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:59
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In How does blogging about science benefit students?, Sandra Porter recommends that students (specifically biotech students at Portland COmmunity College) keep a blog :

My hypothesis is that a science blog for a science student can serve the same purpose that a portfolio serves for an artist or a set of articles serves for a writer.  Your blog can be your record of accomplishments.

Not only can your blog document your work, your blog can show that you can write, that you can spell (not a skill to take for granted), and can give you a chance to describe what you’ve done.

She describes her first job interview and what she is doing to avoid similar embarrassment for her students.  She has students in one class keep a professional lab notebook and bring it to interviews—showing that they can keep a proper lab notebook and providing documentation to support their assertion of knowing various protocols.

Student blogging is another approach she is experimenting with.  She encourages the students to use blogs as an on-line notebook (much like I’ve been doing on this blog for the circuits course), and to include the URL for the blog in resumes and cover letters for jobs.  If interviewers are interested, they can check out a few posts on the blog to see if the student can write coherently (a very important skill that can not be automatically assumed of college graduates) and, if there are search boxes and appropriate tags on the posts, whether the students know the protocols and equipment that the job requires.

In a subsequent post, The ten commandments of student science blogging, she talks about the guidelines she gives students for their blogs, to keep them from accidentally doing unprofessional things that would hurt, rather than, help their chances of getting a job.

The biggest problem I see with her recommendations is that the only audience she has identified for the student is a mysterious “job interviewer” whom the students have never met.  Writing for an unknown, difficult-to-imagine audience is hard. Writing for an imagined expert (an interviewer or professor) almost always brings out the worst writing, with inflated diction, misused jargon, and awkward ungrammatical sentences.  When writing to show that they know something to someone who knows it better, students stumble over nearly every sentence—leaving out important concepts and tossing in irrelevant minor points in a vain attempt to impress.

I think it might benefit the students to be given a more specific audience—one that they can picture writing to directly and actually informing of something new.  For an online lab notebook, it could be students at other schools (“look at the cool stuff we get to do here!”) or future students in the same lab (“never use the pink labels in the freezer—the glue on them cracks in the cold and the labels fall off”), both of whom are imaginable audiences.

The advice I gave in my circuits course is the standard advice I give to students: Write to students taking the course next year.  Assume they know what you knew coming into the course, but explain to them anything that you didn’t already know.  Make the report detailed enough that a student reading it could duplicate your work without having access to the original assignment—though they might have to looks a few things up on the web or in text books. (Provide pointers to appropriate readings, when possible.)  Explain not just what you did, but why, and provide warnings to help your reader avoid mistakes that you made.

Most of the students in the circuits course got this idea, and the reports were mostly coherent and directed at the right audience, though they were a little light on pointers to appropriate reading.

One thing that Sandra Porter doesn’t mention in her “ten commandments”, but which I had to really rant about in my course: “Get the details right!”  Sandra mentions spelling and punctuation, which are markers for attention to details, but the accuracy of the content is far more important. I can forgive an occasional typo (though failure to run text through a spell checker indicates a level of sloppiness that would disturb me as a job interviewer), but the main engineering content needs to be checked and double-checked, both for consistency with the lab notebook notes and for general sanity (recompute the corner frequency from the RC values in the schematic—is that what was intended?).

If you are giving a circuit schematic, every wire must be correctly connected, every component must have the correct value, and pin numbers should be correct.  The students  in the circuits course had incredible difficulty with checking their own and each other’s work for accuracy, and obvious errors (like power-ground shorts) occurred on most of the assignment first drafts.  For a biotech student, the equivalent would be getting the wrong reagent in a protocol, putting ice in autoclave, or replacing µg with mg.

The rate of errors in schematics did not drop much over the quarter, though I felt it should have.  Other writing problems (like poor audience assessment, overuse of passive, or misuse of “would”) were generally fixed after being pointed out, but the sloppiness in the circuit diagrams continued to be a problem all quarter.  By “sloppiness” I don’t mean poor drawing skills, as most of the students used CircuitLab to draw neat schematics, but semantic errors that changed the meaning of the circuits.

If anyone has ideas for improving student attention to details in schematics, I’d appreciate hearing them.

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