Teaching effectively and efficiently: abstract writing

img_3291Are you happy with how you teach writing? Do you have a trick? The only tricks I have are to give good examples and to have students write a lot. Beth Fisher at a Wash U writing workshop convinced me that line editing is seldom read, so I give a few narrative comments.

Yesterday, in a class I love to teach, Undergraduate Research Perspectives, my co-teacher, Debbie Brock and I had an intensive exercise on abstract writing. The student knew they would soon have to make their posters for the spring poster session on research. The abstract is a good place to start.

But instead of having them work on their own abstracts, I had them write abstracts for published papers. I chose 5 fairly straightforward papers from the journal Biology Letters since we were going to do the whole exercise in a single one hour class. I covered up the abstract with green paper and put two copies of each paper on the table. This meant 2 of the 10 students would read and write an abstract for each paper. I also gave them an entry I wrote earlier on excellent abstract writing, here.

They could hardly believe I expected them to read the paper and write an abstract following this rubric in 40 minutes. But I did, so they got to work. I always let them talk to each other. Also Debbie and I circulated and offered comments. They did have the example, broken down sentence by sentence. Here is the bit on the first sentence to get the flavor, but the link is there to be followed:

Then Lindsey says in Sentence 1: Recent research suggests that female birds could use eggshell color as a signal to advertise their quality or investment in order to secure more parental care from their mates. This sentence very clearly tells what the paper is going to be about. It is about variation in egg color in the nest, and a potential adaptive explanation for it. There is a lot packed in there, and she may not really address it all. Here’s a list. 1. Eggshell color varies with the quality of contents. 2. Females have evolved to use this to advertise high quality. 3. Males detect the variation. 4. Males have evolved to invest more in higher quality babies. 4. Males use this signal to do this investing. You could imagine that males would invest less in higher quality babies, assuming mom could pick up the slack. You could also imagine that males pick up on the difference, but it is just an incidental effect to laying good eggs, not a strategy by the females. But, hey, we are only one sentence along!

How did my students do with this? Fabulously well. After 40 minutes they read aloud their abstracts, paired according to the paper they did. Then they could tear off the green paper and compare their abstract to the one published with the paper.

I pointed out that this was a very effective way to get them to think about abstract writing. If I had just given them the rubric without requiring them to use it, it would not have stuck. The other thing that stuck was whatever was in the paper they read, since they had to absorb the main points and apply them. This one hour exercise should help a lot when it comes to writing their own poster abstracts.

I also pointed out that they could try to structure learning for themselves along these lines, taking content and summarizing it in a certain way to prepare for the kinds of tests they might see in other classes.

Now they’ll polish up those abstracts and send them in, feeling empowered.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Teaching effectively and efficiently: abstract writing

  1. µ says:

    Line-editing comments do not work well for students who were raised in a culture of only narrative comments; such students tend to believe that line-editing comments are nitpicked details, and only narrative comments are truly constructive.

    But line-editing comments work well for students raised in a culture of both constructive line-editing and narrative comments; such students capitalize on both kinds of editing/comments, learn to improve their writing skills.

    When I think back about any writing skills that I may have acquired over the years, it was the line-editing comments by my advisor and labmates that helped me most to improve my writing skills.

    It seems that trivializing line-editing commenting is just a cheap excuse for advisors to spend as little time as possible helping students improve their writing skills.

    I agree with “give good examples and to have students write a lot” to teach writing. To this list I would add endless revision and re-revision, then step back and re-read a series of drafts to understand how the writing improved.

  2. I absolutely agree that line editing comments are crucial within the lab group and for grad students. But they only work if they have to be responded to. Some say line edit the first few paragraphs then leave them out. In my experience undergrads do not do well with line edits until they are quite advanced. They will accept all changes and move on. For early writers in college, the narrative comments get at what they are trying to accomplish.

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