Methods to work with structure.
Students need to practice scientific communication, and be able to write well-structured texts. The exercises can help students with finding an overview of the text, help with planning, sorting and allocating information, and set a direction for further work.
The techniques also help to read and understand other students' texts, and enable students to talk about good writing in the field. Students are trained to think about and take into account the needs of the reader, and integrate the reader's perspective into the writing process.
Students may also benefit from reading about structuring a text on Search & Write.
What: An exercise to structure an academic text, widely used at the Academic Writing Center, and well described on Search & Write.
When: In seminar groups, for students who need to understand how the different parts are connected.
How: Conversations, discussions and writing exercises based on a brief introduction to an academic text, and the relationship between Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion (IMRaD)
At the top, the text aims quite broadly, and targets a wide audience. The function of the introduction is to direct the reader to a specific problem. Often the introduction will follow the CARS model (see both ABT and CARS below). In some written assignments, theory or background is included as part of the introduction.
Next follow methods and results. The theory, methods and results should only include what is necessary to answer the research question. In the discussion, the goal is to place the new results into a larger context. The end of the text should extend as far as the opening promised, but neither narrower nor wider.
IMRaD is relevant for most lab reports, semester assignments and master's theses.
Some students are used to using a fish as a model for an academic text. This model does not match the structure of most academic literature.
What: Technique to get an overview of the structure of a text.
When: Students who need to get an overview and clean up the structure on a first draft. Also relevant as an analysis tool to read the syllabus and example texts.
How: Summarize each paragraph of the text with a single sentence or a keyword, either in the margin or on a separate piece of paper. The short sentences draw out the essence of each section, and gives the writer an overview of the order and structure of the entire text.
The technique gives access to the underlying structure of the text, and makes it easier to talk about how order and structure can be improved or altered to enhance the unity of the text.
The bird's eye view also makes it easier to experiment with other types of structure and structure, as well as grasping repetitions, holes, detours and main points.
- Some students use this technique top summarize a text in short and concise sentences.
- Instead of summarizing the main points, the method may also focus on figures, code or references in the text (see close and critical reading Argumentation)
- Some students prefer to write the keywords on post-IT notes, and then sort them as part of an open and creative process (see post-IT bonanza above).
Cut and sort
What: Sorting to understand the structure of a text / code.
When: To learn the importance of a good structure in texts and programs.
How: Hand out a printed copy of a relevant example of a text or code in the same genre that students will write later. The paragraphs / sections must numbered, and make sure that the order of the paragraphs is random. Students cut the paper into pieces reassemble the text / code.
After working individually, students discuss in pairs or groups and argue for their choices. If relevant, specify that the task does not have a correct solution. Students must make choices when they structure the text, and this is an important part of communicating the subject.
- Hand out figures / graphs / code snippets from a published research article, with no figure number and caption. Students must discuss and understand what the figures show, and argue which order they think is best for presenting the information.
- Invite students to cut their own first draft into pieces to sort and structure.
"ABT" – And-But-Therefore
What: An exercise to help students place their text in a rhetorical context.
When: Students who need to create direction on a text, or to sharpen their understanding of how their own research is related to something bigger.
How: The student writes down the three words AND, BUT and THEREFORE on a sheet of paper, with some space between each word. This provides four blank fields on the paper, open space for four sentences. Provide information about what characterizes the four sentences, and give relevant examples:
- The first sentence gives an introduction to the main topic.
- AND the second sentence points to the edge of knowledge and gives a more detailed description of the relevant topic.
- BUT the third sentence points to an unsolved problem, a lack of knowledge or something to be clarified.
- THEREFORE, the fourth sentence explains how the researcher has approached the problem, what the solution is, and what is the way forward.
The four sentences do not have to start with the suggested words. You can also try "however", "on the other side", "despite" or "nonetheless" as the beginning of the third sentence, and see how it affects the writing and the thought process.
Set the timer to 10 minutes for the students write a draft of the four sentences, and then ask students to discuss in pairs or in small groups.
- Use the ABT model to write structured summaries of published research or to extract the essence of syllabus literature.
- The four sentences can serve as the first half of a scientific abstract.
- The four sentences can also act as an "elevator pitch" or the opening of an engaging lecture.
"CARS" – Creating A Research Space
What: A model developed by John Swales (1990) to describe the rhetorical elements in the introduction to a research article.
When: Together with students who need an introduction to possible rhetorical moves in the introduction to a research paper.
How: John Swales' model is based on anlayis of the literature, and has identified three sequential moves in the introdution:
- Establish the territory (broad context and the research field).
- Identify a niche (a problem, a knowledge gap or a disagreement in the field).
- Occupy the niche (methods, strategy, or approach to the issue).
For a more comprehensive description, see:
- Swales, John M. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings (1990)
- Swales, John M. and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students (2008)
- Schimel, Joshua. Writing Science. (2012)
What: Sorting task to structure a text.
When: For students who need an overview of what they want to say and how they want to say it. The exercise can function as a brainstorm exercise at the beginning of a thesis, but may be best suited for students who have obtained some results, but who have not yet started writing.
How: Select a portion of a larger text, focusing for example on the results or the discussion . The exercise has three parts and takes a total of 30-45 minutes.
Part 1 - Thinking like a writer:
- Write one key finding on each of 4-8 post-IT notes (5 min).
- Look for patterns and move around on the post-IT notes (1-2 min).
- Place the post-IT notes in a linear order that makes sense to the writer (1-2 min).
- Ask students to lift up the post-IT note they are most excited about themselves. Ask them to move this to the beginning, then to the end. Test and discuss how the placement of various elements in the sequence changes the story. What happens to the story? (2 min)
- Students test different sequences of their post-IT notes (2-3 min).
- Maybe someone has ended up in a different order now than at the start?
Part 2 - Thinking as a reader:
- Bring out post-IT notes in a different color. Place the new post-IT notes alternately between each post-IT note from Part 1 (1 min).
- On each new note, write down a question. Ask yourself what the reader might wonder about, and what the reader expects to come after each post-IT? The goal is that the next post-IT (a finding or an argument) will directly answer this question. The exercise builds a story that alternates between a result that gives a question, which then gets an answer, which in turn triggers a new question. (5 min)
- It is possible that some students need to move the post-IT notes around to revise the structure of the story. That's the point.
Part 3 - Talk about the text:
- Ask students to present their post-IT stories to each other in pairs (5 min).
- If the students are a medium sized group, ask them in turn to reflect on how the method helps them think about writing, and what happened to their story (10 min).
- Post-IT-bonanza can support group work, or facilitate discussion with a supervisor.
- It is probably easiest to focus on a specific part of the text, such as results, methods, introduction or discussion.
- The method can also work together with reverse outline (see below), where each paragraph is transferred as a key word to a post-IT note.