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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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?”

Three, no four ways the Spanish Inquisition will help you write better headings than this one.

 

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I bet you were not expecting me to use the Spanish Inquisition to help you write better headings. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and I’m guessing that it got your attention, or you would not have read this far. The Spanish Inquisition have several ways to help you improve your headings. Amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as:

Fear

Fear the reaction of your readers. Counting your arguments is a good and powerful way to dia1bring a point across, but these days everybody’s doing it and readers are starting to be really annoyed with yet another heading like, “Seven reasons why you should take up running”, “Five reasons why you should not eat bread”, “Three ways to improve your sales”, “Ten reasons why running is bad for you”, “Six reasons why you should avoid annoying your readers with boring headings”.

Surprise

Surprise your readers with a more interesting kind of heading. kirk-surprisedSomething they were not expecting. You want to be read? Be different. Stand out from the crowd. Do something new. Boldly combine ideas that no one has combined before.

Ruthless efficiency

Use as few words as you can, but no fewer than you need. Headings are important because readers use them as a selection instrument. Am I going to read this blog post or not, is what they’re asking themselves, and if they don’t understand the heading they won’t read your post. Or your technical report. Or your scientific paper. So KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

Fanatical devotion

Do not stop revising until you’ve got the perfect heading. This can take a long time. Consider leaving it alone for a couple of days if you’re not satisfied yet. Don’t throw away previous versions, you may want to revert back to them later on. Personally, I wrote approximately 20 headings for this post before I decided on this one and I still have them somewhere.

Nice red uniforms

If you are writing for a newspaper or a weblog you can do pretty much whatever you want with your headings (and even here we see a lot of people stealing and copying each other’s ideas, which is boring and which is why am writing this post). At work, uniformity may be expected more often (Look! We’ve been doing it like this for ages so it must be a good idea!). And even if we know that it’s the heading that stands out from the rest that will catch people’s eye, not all your headings can always be spectacularly different from the ones written by your colleagues. Some of you have company templates that you have to use and often a particular style is prescribed. But even if you have to do what everybody else is doing and they make you wear that uniform, at least try to make it a red one.

comfy-chair

Writers who fail to take this advice seriously will be considered blasphemers and will be poked with soft cushions, with all the stuffing at one end. And if they don’t confess their blasphemy they will have to sit in a comfy chair until teatime.

Spoiler Alert!

Why bottom lines should be headlines.

What would your readers say if you put the conclusion of your report in its title?

A: Booh! Spoiler alert!

B: Aha!

I have asked that question in my writing groups for years and every time a few of my students answer ‘A’. Apparently they think that argumentation should come before conclusion. And of course it does – when you are doing the research and the designing. But does that mean that you should keep your conclusions secret until your reader has read the rest of the report? I think not!

Mind you: I am not talking about scientific papers or essays here. But your report should give the most efficient representation of your conclusions and argumentation possible, and that means that your reader should be able to see what your main conclusion is. Immediately. On the front page.

A title like: “An investigation into algae as an energy source” forces your poor readers to find the Summary or the Conclusion section and read until they come to the relevant bit, which they will find annoying. You don’t want your readers to find you annoying. Really. It’s bad for business.

Instead, write something like: “Three reasons why algae will never replace fossile fuel”, or: “Why algae are likely to be the biofuel of the future”. If you want (you do), you can combine them into a title and a subtitle (or primary and secondary, if you are American) like this:

Three reasons why algae will replace fossile fuel within five years.

An investigation into algae as an energy source.

Or:

Algare are not an acceptable alternative for fossile fuel.

Research shows algae are too slow to grow, expensive and inefficient.

I have said this in previous posts, but you may not (yet) have read them all (you should). People who read technical reports professionally don’t have a lot of time to read. Do them a favour: don’t waste their time by keeping your main findings a secret.

Section Intoductions: Tell Your Readers What to Expect

When you divide your text into subsections you will have to make your reader understand what you are doing and what you are doing it for. This means that all sections at first and second level that you split up into subsections get an introduction.

Third level sections  usually don’t get an introduction as they are not split up. You would get a fourth level, which is really too much of a good thing. The example below shows a first level section that is subdivided into two second level sections in which two systems are compared. Notice that Chapter 3.1 is not split up into fragments and therefore does not have an introduction.

Please bear in mind that in reality you would never call them system A and B. Give them names that explains how they are different form each other.


Chapter 3: Comparison: System B performs better than system A

Now that we have established that system A and system B both yield satisfactory results, it is time to see which system meets the requirements best. Chapter 3.1 shows how both systems compare on durability and maintainability, chapter 3.2 will show how they cope in extreme situations.

3.1: Both systems are durable and easily maintainable

According to Johnson (2015), System A was found to be extremely durable. Even after 15 years of non-stop service the accuracy remained …. This was confirmed in several experiments (e.g. Post 2011, Williams 2012). System B, likewise, has proved to be ….

Maintenance of both systems was different only in minor aspects. System A requires slightly more time for …., but his is negligible because …

3.2: System B is more reliable under extreme conditions

Even though both systems function similarly under most circumstances, some remarkable differences came to light when we tested them in extreme temperatures. Both systems were used to measure X at 12 different temperatures and it was here where system B proved to be … Chapter 3.2.1 will first show the results of …., chapter 3.2.2 describes …

3.2.1: Low temperatures

Our measurements show that at temperatures below 100K, system A started to show …. This means that an extra insulation …., which will lead to ….

3.2.2: High temperatures

The last two measurements, at 500 and 600K respectively, show a marked difference ….

3.3: Conclusion: system B will be more reliable in future deployments

In the current situation, system A and B will both work equally well, as the temperatures at which they are used are moderate. However, as the situations, and with these the temperatures at which the systems will be subjected, will become more extreme in the next 3 or 4 years ….

(Do you see, by the way, how all the headings together form a kind of summary?)

Communicate Technology

Helping students to write and present technical reports.

Welcome!

This blog was initially created to help my students at Delft University of Technology write and present better technical reports. It turns out that a lot of people who are not my students are reading my posts too. Cool! I hope you find what you need and that you enjoy reading my blog.

What do you mean with “better technical reports”, you may ask. Better means: more geared to your readers’ needs and wishes.  So, all we need to do is find out who your readers and listeners are, find out what they need and wish and then find ways to deliver.

Easy? Hardly. The tricky thing about professional reports is that they are all read by several different people who all have different expectations from the same report. The fact that the reports that we write deal with technology adds an extra layer of challenges to this.

Presentations also, are usually attended by mixed audiences. Some people will be experts in your field, some will not. Some people will expect pictures, some people will expect numbers. And it’s you job to decide on a good mix.

In this blog  I will post anecdotes, examples, exercises and ideas dealing with writing and presenting  about technology. Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Punch those keys!