How a Skinhead’s excellent presentation fails at the very last moment.

One of the most successful ways to end a presentation is to bring back an image, concept, person or something else that you used in the introduction. Part of the success of this trick lies in the fact that the audience don’t know that you are going to so this, so they are usually pleasantly surprised when you do and will start to applaud.

A few years ago, one of my first-year Mechanical Engineering students almost got this right, with the result that at the end of the talk there was no applause, but awkward silence.

The others in the group had warned me about her, saying that she was nuts. She may not look nuts or talk as if she was nuts and she may not act nuts, but she was completely and utterly nuts, they said. And it was true: she did not look, or act nuts at all. She was a skinhead, and in her presentation she explained the rules and customs of the skinhead community. It was actually kind of interesting, if slightly awkward. It certainly had news value, as none of the students in the audience had ever dared to ask a skinhead what their mores entailed.

The introduction was fine. She started by explaining how yoarmy bootsu could identify the status of a skinhead just by looking at their shoelaces. The black shoelaces she was wearing were a sign that she was a new member with low status. Status was acquired by the amount of violence one was willing to use. ‘The most prestigious shoelaces are red, she said, ‘you are only allowed to wear red shoelaces if you have killed someone with your bare hands.’

The body of the presentation was well organised and she used clear illustrations, good speed, melody, posture – she did everything right. She was in “uniform”, so she was able to use herself as a visual aid, pointing at specific parts of her attire, which was rather funny and even mildly endearing: she was a girl showing off her clothes.

And then she came to her conclusion, which went quite well, she summarised the main points she had tried to make, and then, in the very last sentence she demonstrated that she was a good presenter and completely crazy at the same time:

‘And one day,’ she said with a glow of anticipation, ‘I hope I will be wearing red shoelaces. Thank you for your attention’.

Group Writing, Part Deux

From my previous post you may have got the impression that I don’t want students to write in groups. Of course this is nonsense. I just wanted to illustrate what can go wrong if writing projects are poorly organised. So here is a small piece on how I think a writing course could be integrated in an (engineering) project,while causing virtually no casualties. Please feel free to comment.

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Most of the writing courses I teach are integrated in projects. This means that we spend a couple of lessons on instruction and we discuss the reports the students write for the project. This works quite well, because it gives the students something realistic to write about.

But some of our writing groups are as large as eight to ten students. That sounds like a lot, and it is. How do we deal with that? How do we avoid leeching and students not feeling responsible for anything except the chapter they wrote themselves? Is there such a thing as an ideal group size for learning to write? Can we give individual grades to students when we don’t know what they have contributed to the report?

In real life, the number of people involved in producing any text depends on what they are writing. If it is a Valentine’s card, I guess most people want to do that alone. Novels, too, are usually written by one author. But if you are writing a journal paper about the research you did with a partner, you will want to do that together. And if the five of you have designed something like a bridge or a landing gear or a coffee machine, all the members of the group are involved but it is usually the chief designer/engineer who does the actual “writing”.

I put the word “writing” in quotation marks, because I am running the risk of confusing two meanings of the word. Of course the chief engineer gets a lot of (written) input from the other members of the team, so they also “write”. But constructing the document, fitting all the team’s contributions together into a readable, understandable and convincing report has to be the responsibility of the person whose name comes first on the front of the document.

plethoraSo what does that mean for report-writing courses? Well, apparently, in real life too, only the main author feels responsible for the whole document. If we are going to simulate real life, we should also have students writing in groups consisting of one main author and several specialists. And if we want all members of the group to have experienced being in charge of a writing project, maybe we can achieve this by making the number of reports to be written as large as the number of people in the group and rotating roles for every report they write.

Let’s say we are running a project for which we ask our students to write a design report, a progress report, a test report and a final report. Four students could switch roles for every report so that by the end of the project they will have all performed the role of specialist three times and the role of main author once.

By doubling up on every role, making students work in pairs, we can bring the size of the group up to eight. From an educational point of view working in pairs is not such a bad idea anyway.

eFh1MIf, even though everybody in the project group will have contributed something to the text, only two students will have “written” the report, how do you give feedback? And to whom? And how do you give grades? You really don’t want to discuss a report with two students who wrote it and six students who did not. Also, the teams writing the first three reports will have had less input than the last team, so it would be unfair to grade them on their “own” reports. And besides, they would have their grade fixed too early in the project, which would be a poor incentive to keep coming to class.

So here is what you might do. Each report is discussed with the two main authors only, but the feedback is made available to everybody in the group. Of course the feedback and the way in which the teams communicate their input to the main authors can also be discussed during the lectures. After the final report has been discussed, each team gets the chance to use the feedback to write a new, final draft on which they are graded.

This way, a teacher receives four reports per group of eight students to give feedback on, and another four reports to grade after the project has finished. Also this way, reports are only discussed with people who actually wrote them. Also also this way, leeching will be virtually impossible.

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Group Writing

asterix-huge-fight-37036293789The following is an almost literal transcript of a conversation I recently had with a student whose name was not James. I think it shows what often happens when students write in groups.

James: I received a fail mark for the report, while I thought I had done a really good job.

Bob: Oh dear! And what about the rest of your group?

James: They all failed too. Could you tell me what went wrong?

Bob: Of course! I think the problem is Chapter 5, “Concept Generation”.

James: What’s wrong with it?

Bob: Well, let me ask you this. What did you think about its quality?

James: I don’t know. I didn’t write Chapter 5.

Bob: I know you didn’t. And neither did anybody else.

James: Ah …

Bob: And there is another thing. Did you notice that Chapter 4 consists of illustrations only?

James: Ehhh … not really, no. I wrote Chapter 7 you see …

Bob: I do see! And what a wonderful chapter it is. If only the assignment had been to write one chapter each, eh? You would have nailed it!

(Oh, I almost actually said that last bit …)  😉

Have mercy!

Hello. My name is Patrick. I’m going to tell you something about the hyper loop. First I will tell you something about trains in general, then I will tell you something about the history of the hyper loop, and then I will elaborate on the hyper loop competition. After that I will elaborate on how the hyper loop works and finally I will have a conclusion. After that I will try to stop my teacher from killing himself.

Hyperloop_all_cutaway

Questions, questions.

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.

wrong_question_headerStudent: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
questions roadsign

Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
questions roadsign

Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Gesprekken oefenen maakt je een betere schrijver

Als Brugman

Overtuigend schrijven is voor veel studenten niet gemakkelijk; het is lastig om te bedenken wat je tegenstander zou kunnen zeggen. Je denken is begrensd.
Nu is uit eerder onderzoek gebleken dat discussie-opdrachten voor studenten onderling, studenten kan helpen om die grenzen te slechten, maar nu heeft Columbia University  aangetoond dat het bedenken van conflicterende meningen zorgt voor een beter onderzoek van het probleem dat je moet oplossen.

60 studenten werkten aan een opdracht. Het moest gaan over de twee burgemeesterskandidaten.Van te voren hadden ze allemaal een  lijst van problemen gekregen in de stad en een lijst van oplossingen die de kandidaten hadden voorgesteld. Sommigen van hen moesten een dialoog beschrijven tussen TV-commentatoren en sommige van de studenten werden kregen dezelfde informatie, maar moesten een overtuigend essay schrijven over de kandidaten.
En wat bleek? De dialoog-schrijvers bleken beter in het direct vergelijken van de twee kandidaten en het beschrijven van de…

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