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27 February 2012

Describing a procedure concisely

From  Don't get the reference?  Check out
"English Paper" at the homestarrunner wiki.
Much of the physics teaching world, and I, have leapt away from multi-page, badly written "formal lab reports."  Instead, it's typical now for students to be asked several directed questions about an experiment.  Formal lab reports are only useful if the instructor takes the time and energy to truly teach the scientific writing process -- that means grading drafts, participating in writing conferences, paying as much attention to style and language as to results.  I decided long ago that the benefits of the formal lab were in no way worth the costs.

That said, I still do teach a few writing skills.  Particularly, my class learns how to describe an experimental procedure while defining relevant variables.  AP exams, as well as my Honors Physics exam and even the Regents exam, occasionally ask for a description of an experiment.  Your class needs some minimal tutelage so that these questions become easy rather than time- and stress- consuming.

Describe the procedure you used to measure T, q, and any other relevant parameters.

This is a question I ask after our first experiment, phrased identically to the style of an AP question.  I explain to the class that they should use no more than three sentences, telling me in prose what they measured and how they measured it.  I expect an answer such as:

We kept a cart in place on an inclined track using a string held parallel to the track.  The tension in the string, T, was measured with a spring scale tied to the string.  The angle of the incline from the horizontal, q, was measured with the "clinometer" iphone app.

Note how everything, including definitions of variables, is included as part of the prose.  Some folks want to just give a list of variables* ; they lose considerable points in my attempt to get them to write sentences.  

"T:  measured with a scale"

But consider what I often see at the AP reading, or after my class's first experiment:

We came into lab today in order to find the tension in a string when we hold a cart at many different angles.  First we found are partners; I worked with Joe.  Then we gathered our materials:  A 250 g cart, some string, scissors, an aluminum track, and a spring scale.  Goggles should be worn, as always in the laboratory.  We tied the string to the cart, being careful that the string could be held parallel to the track.  Joe tied a sailor's knot so that we could attach the spring scale to the cart.  I downloaded an app from the itunes library that shows an angle.  Now, with all materials in place, we could begin the experiment.  Joe carefully read the scale to the nearest 0.2 N, and he wrote down both readings in his notebook.  Finally, I graphed the data on a graph with a pencil, which I forgot to include in my materials list above.

[Is it considered satire if it's true?]

My purpose here is not* to make fun of a student who would write the above passage.  The question is, how do we get this student to write a proper, brief, clear, 3-sentence procedure?


I've had some success reminding the class of their audience.  They are not writing a "how to" manual, they're not writing for their English teacher who is ignorant of laboratory methods; the audience for a laboratory procedure is OTHER SCIENTISTS.  I make the audience even more concrete by identifying a recent alumnus: "Peter Chen, whom youall know took my class last year, should be able to figure out what you measured, and how you measured it."  They see with minimal prodding that Peter doesn't need to be told to gather materials.  Peter doesn't need a silly safety lecture.  Peter doesn't need to be told to record data carefully -- we take all these basic "skills" for granted, because we are scientists.  

The other useful reminder is about time.  A procedural lab question like this might be worth three points on an AP exam.  At the going rate of one point per minute, the test expects a few minutes of work -- no more. If you spend a lifetime writing multiple paragraphs, even if such paragraphs are pulitzer-prize worthy, you will earn... three points.  And you will NOT earn the other seven points available in this problem, because the bell has rung, the sun has set, and the exam is over.

It's important to model the correct writing style for the class at some point.  This is a different kind of writing than their English teacher has required -- after all, I used no drama, no interesting transitions, nothing about my feelings.  They have to see for themselves that it is okay to be short and "boring."  

And finally, perfect practice makes perfect.  Some folks will ignore all your advice until you take off points; then their next writeup will be perfect.  Others will need a figurative bashing over the head.  But with patient, persistent work, you can get your students comfortable with describing experimental procedures.


1 comment:

  1. I used to expect my students to write formal lab reports after labs as often as we could. But then I realized how much of a headache it was. I would have to spend SIGNIFICANT time teaching it - which isn't necessarily a bad idea.

    What I've decided to do now is just what you said: give students guided direction questions and worry about a lab report later. That later, in fact, is right now - when we do our schoolwide science fair. Throughout the process students turn in "chunks" of the lab report to me... first the introduction/background, then the procedure, then their results, etc. which I review (maybe take a grade) and return so that the students can clean it up before the final draft is due.

    I've found that this actually works quite well, and the students turn in quality, professional looking lab reports.

    Chris Mitchell