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Teaching Detailed Writing and Procedural Transitions

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Students new to writing lab and research reports often underestimate the importance of consistency of terminology and detail as well as appropriate and precise procedural transitions. One reason for this is that they may not clearly understand the purpose of this kind of writing beyond a school setting.

In the professional world, a lab or research report serves to both publicize new information and to give future researchers a framework for testing and applying the original researchers’ methods. As all instructors who deal with writing understand, it is difficult to reproduce the conditions of scientific publication for students. However, the following activity emphasizes the function of an audience with needs and expectations, while simplified, that mirror those of the scientific community they ought to have in mind as they write.

Activity: Describe Setting a Mousetrap

Put students into groups of two or more. Give them a standard mouse trap and ask them to write a set of directions for setting and disabling the trap. Make sure they do not have access to directions for setting mousetraps (e.g. discard the directions and limit access to the Internet). Prohibit students from using visual elements in this exercise. Students may think at first that the assignment is easy and beneath them, but will soon understand the difficulty of inventing terms that describe each part of the trap and the operations that must be performed in order to set the trap correctly and safely. Students will need at least 10-15 minutes to write the first part of the exercise. Expect a lot of noise as students verbally work on defining their terms as a group.

Next, select a volunteer to set and disable a mousetrap according to the directions of another group for the entire class. The volunteer should be provided only with the written directions of the selected group. Have the volunteer read the directions aloud as s/he attempts to set the trap and instruct him or her to follow only the directions as stated. S/he should also be instructed to let the class know when s/he is confused or cannot proceed. Chances are, the volunteer will run into problems right away. Here’s a list of common problems:

  • Unclear, wordy, or imprecise descriptions
  • Inconsistent use of key terms
  • Missing or imprecise procedural transitions

This activity can be a good way to socialize new lab partners and simply introduce the importance of precision, consistent use of terms, and procedural transitions. If this is your aim, you can end the activity at the end of class and perhaps ask students to write a reflection of why the activity was interesting or important. You can also use this activity to introduce the challenges of writing a methods and materials section. Ask students to work with their directions over the course of a few class periods. They should be asked to revise together for accuracy and clarity and, importantly, the genre conventions of methods sections (e.g. using past tense, passive voice etc).

A good way to extend this exercise is to require students to refine their instructions and add graphics to their explanations as homework.