Gas station without pumps

2017 February 25

More writing advice from the electronics course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:13
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I spent the entire long Presidents’ Day weekend grading and still did not clear my backlog (the cold I’ve had for the past two weeks has really reduced my ability to work long hours).  I did get a homework set graded and a design report set graded during the 3-day weekend, but I was left with a set of 18 redone lab reports that I still hadn’t gotten to.  Wednesday produced another set of redone reports (so I now have about 35), and Friday produced another homework set (which I just finished grading after spending all Saturday—I haven’t even gotten dressed yet and it is almost 8pm). Tomorrow I’ll tackle the first set of redone reports, assuming my cold lets me do anything tomorrow.

In Disappointment with chain stores, I commented on no longer wanting to grade in the Peet’s coffee shop I used to grade in, and commenter “Mike” wanted to know what solution I came up with. This winter, I’ve mainly been grading in my breakfast room at home, using a tiny laptop (an 11″ MacBook Air, which we bought for travel and for lecturing) when needed to look things up (data sheets, my solution sets, the exact wording in the book, …).  This has worked out ok this year, though I do tend to wander into the kitchen for snacks a bit too often.  Still, the snacks at home are healthier than in a coffee shop!

Here are some general comments that I shared with the whole class, based on the most recent design reports:


Many students reported using a 3.3V power supply without measuring it, resulting in inconsistent information, such as VOH > 3.3V.  PteroDAQ reports the power-supply voltage on the GUI and in the metadata for the data file, so the data was available, even if the students hadn’t thought to measure it while in lab.


  • Equations are parts of sentences, not figures and not objects dropped randomly on the page. Treat them grammatically as noun phrases.
  • Explicit figure credit is needed any time a figure is copied or adapted. The caption must say something like “figure adapted from …” or “figure copied from …”. Failure to do so is plagiarism, and I’ll have to start academic integrity proceedings if students fail to do proper figure credits in future.
  • Don’t bury the lede. Start with the design goal, not with generic background. A lot of students still wanted to give me a bunch of B.S. about what hysteresis was, before telling me that they were designing a capacitive touch sensor using a relaxation oscillator built around a Schmitt trigger.


  • The subjunctive mood marked by the auxiliary verb “would” is used for many things in English, but technical writing primarily uses just one: contrary-to-fact statement. “The inverter that we would be using” says that you didn’t use that inverter and are about to say why. A lot of students seem to think that “would be” is some formal form of past tense—they’ve seen it in writing, but never understood what it means.  I fault their middle-school English teachers for not stressing the importance of more advanced grammar than the bare minimum, but the fault could have been corrected in high school or in college composition classes, but still persists.
  • Students are still using way too much passive: “It was decided …” should be replaced with “We decided …”.  Part of the problem here is that much of the writing they are exposed to overuses passive also—excessive passive is a common writing error for scientists and engineers, not just students.


  • “Firstly”, “secondly”, “lastly” ⇒ “first”, “second”, “last”. These are already adverbs and don’t need an “-ly” ending.  Strangely, I never see the corresponding problem with “next”, though it is in the same class of words that are simultaneously adjectives and adverbs.
  • There are a lot of words that are compound words as nouns, but separable verb+particle pairs as verbs. For example, “setup” is a noun, but “set up” is a verb. Other examples include layout, turnaround, pickup, putdown, stowaway, flyover, and setback.
  • Avoid the unit abbreviation mm2, as it is too hard to tell whether you mean m(m2) or (mm)2. Most often, the (mm)2 interpretation will be made, but a lot of students used it for m(m2).  (Same for cm2.)
  • Many students are using “proportional” wrong, for any increasing function. The phrase “f proportional to d” means f=kd for some k, not just that f increases with d. Similarly, “T inversely proportional to d” means T=k/d for some k, not just that C decreases with d.


  • Capitalize at beginning of sentence and proper names only: “Schmitt trigger” not “Schmitt Trigger”, “Figure 3” but “many figures”. Figure names, table names, and equation names are proper nouns, so should be capitalized: “There are three figures on the last page: Figures 4, 5, and 7”.
  • Unit names are not capitalized (hertz, volts, amps, …), but symbols for units from people’s names are (Hz, V, A)
  • Hyphenate a noun phrase used as a modifier for another noun: “Schmitt-trigger inverter” but “Schmitt trigger”.


  1. Have you considered having the students peer review the initial report, working from a rubric that lists the things that are to be checked? (Done double blind, but not blind to you so you can grade the quality of the peer review if you wish. Each student reviews two reports.) It can be a win-win: you get reports with absurdities removed, and students get to see some reports that are better than their own as a model of good writing. They turn in the original report, the peer reviews, and the final report the next week. The rest of that lab period is used on skills needed in the next lab.

    Passive voice is TAUGHT in our chemistry classes. You might be fighting that and HS science classes. One of our college English classes includes first person arguments. Only “term papers” are expected to be in a passive voice, so our students are aware of the difference. They have been taught that passive voice is good scientific writing in science classes. Another good reason to visit with your colleages in the Chemistry and Biology departments, as well as English.

    I’ll mention in a separate aside that the most shocking difference between a CC and a university is that my office is between those for chemistry and calculus and across from persons who teach statistics and biology and algebra. I’d have to walk a quarter mile or more to see anyone from those departments at a university, and I would not know them by name or specialty. Here I have lunch with them or chat between classes about anything that comes up (algebra errors, units, lab reports). That is how I know about peer review of lab reports. I don’t do it myself, but am thinking about it.

    I object to your objection to using mm^2. It is standard SI, so misinterpretation is something they need to eliminate so they don’t get fired or embarass your university after they take their first job. Maybe you need to have them cut out 1/100 of a square meter, then compare it to a square cm. Or cut a square meter into cm squares to see how many they get. If you know that Seeing is useless, and you do, then Doing is needed.

    PS – Your old article about Peets was enlightening. It explains why their coffee, which I loved when first exposed to it back when they probably had only one store in Berkeley, is on the shelf in a chain grocery more than a thousand miles away.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2017 February 26 @ 10:39 | Reply

    • I used to use peer review, back when I taught tech writing—I gave up on it as it always turned out to be a complete waste of time. The students couldn’t tell good writing from bad or didn’t care enough about their fellow students’ work to provide meaningful comments. Other writing instructors claim that it has worked well in their courses, so it may have been something about the way I taught, rather than the technique in general.

      I do have the students write in pairs, and I have told them (repeatedly) to read and correct each other’s work, so what I’m seeing is the result after some peer editing. I think that the problem may just be that they are so used to “vaguely right” being good enough that they are not aware of the really big mistakes they sometimes make.

      My office is closer to chemistry and microbiology faculty than to half the faculty in my own department (our 12-member department is spread out over 5 or 6 buildings now), and definitely closer than to any of the faculty from other engineering departments. So I could check with the chem faculty, but I suspect that they are happy enough with stuff that has all the info in notes for the intro labs, and that grammar is not important to them. (For that matter, from what I’ve heard from the students, the intro chem labs here are nearly fill-in-the-blank labs, with not much content to convey.) The chem and physics faculty probably never see student writing in the intro courses, because the courses are so huge that all the grading is done by TAs or even undergrad graders.

      At a recent on-campus conferences about writing for transfer, only 2 STEM faculty showed up (an EE lecturer and me)—I don’t think that our STEM faculty want to help the students learn to write better, because that would take more teaching time, which would cut into research time. The administration and the senior faculty clearly value research more highly than teaching. So the STEM faculty will complain about the low-quality of student writing, but not do anything about it. Our department requires a lot more writing than most of the engineering programs, with substantial writing projects in most upper-division courses, so our students generally can write by the time they graduate (though some manage to slide through with inadequate skills).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2017 February 26 @ 17:44 | Reply

      • What little I know is that a detailed rubric is essential, precisely because they can’t tell good writing from bad. (Putting together a student-friendly rubric is what has kept me from doing it.) What I noticed in your list of complaints were some that you can’t fix (subjuncive mood) and some that were practically a checklist (first person active, units) they can use to pick the nits that get in the way of your grading. You are most of the way there for that report. They can handle grading concrete things like capitalization. They just don’t know right from wrong.

        Comment by CCPhysicist — 2017 February 27 @ 19:55 | Reply

        • I have yet to see a rubric that was any use for grading, much less for prompting the sort of detailed feedback students need. The examples I’ve seen have all been so vague as to be absolutely useless, or so incomplete that they only catch about 5% of the important problems.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2017 February 28 @ 07:26 | Reply

          • Maybe I wasn’t clear. I thought your bullet list was close to being an appropriate rubric already, although I would stick to the top 5 and make them worth 10 points (2, 1, 0) if done correctly. For example:

            First paragraph of the report states the design goal. (Circle what should be the first paragraph if the device being designed is not described at the start of the report.)

            Written in active voice rather than passive voice. (Circle a few examples in the text.)

            Equations are treated like they are a phrase within a sentence.

            Figure, equation, and table names are capitalized.

            Comment by CCPhysicist — 2017 March 4 @ 14:57 | Reply

  2. The problem is that the bullet list comes after I’ve read a stack of papers. It reflects what went wrong in that particular set of papers. I can make a bullet list ahead of time, and find that 90% of it is irrelevant (because few people make that particular mistake on that stack of papers). If I used a pre-created rubric for grading, I’d have to assign 90% of the points to “other”, because that’s where the big problems would be. If I just gave points for the the top 5 problems I anticipated, then I’d either be giving out a lot of zeros for halfway decent papers or a lot of 100% for complete crap. I’m not willing to do either one.

    Even after teaching writing courses dozens of times, I still have a hard time guessing what the big problems will be in any given batch of student papers. Some things come up repeatedly, year after year, but not in the same assignments.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2017 March 4 @ 19:33 | Reply

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