The power of explaining someone else’s idea

In our short evening class we like to have time to think, time to write, time to talk, and time to share. When these go together well, it is transformative.

Last week in the last class before spring break, we paired up the undergraduates to write the first draft of their abstracts for the university-wide poster session. It is nearly 2 months off, but beginning early is what results in powerful posters.

We might have had each of them write a quick rough draft, share, comment, fix, then read aloud. Yes, we can do that even in our short class. They are used to the pace.

But instead we did something else. We had them take 15 minutes to explain their project to their partner and then the partner wrote the abstract. Of course there was a lot of back and forth during the 15 minutes. The students knew we expected only about five sentences. One would introduce the general topic. The next one would explain the problem. The third sentence would give their approach to the problem. The fourth sentence would give their results. The final sentence would relate their results to the field as a whole. IMG_3289

The natural tendency of early students is to focus on what they did rather than why they did it or what it means. But explaining it to someone else makes this impossible. The other person is not obsessed with the daily work and simply wants to write a thorough abstract.

Then we had them read their abstracts aloud to the class. We did not have time to switch roles, so the other half of the class will have to wait until after break to either write or explain, depending on what they did previously.

This sort of explaining is surprisingly hard. I first had to do it introducing myself and my partner at a small meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in the Galapagos. I remember my shame when I somehow confused the very organism my partner worked on, something I knew perfectly well. This made me sympathetic to my students and understanding when some of them came to me saying they didn’t really understand their own projects well until this simple exercise.

I should put together a whole semester’s worth of exercises like this one for small classes where each has their own out of class project. But next semester we’ll be delving into statistics with R. I can hardly wait!

 

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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
This entry was posted in Communication, Posters, Presentations and seminars, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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