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143 Posts authored by: Traci Gardner Expert

Rough outline of a talk on white collar work tips for developer types by Michael Cote on FlickI have asked students to informally outline all of their projects this term. I am not strict about the form of the outlines. They can use jot lists, topic outlines, tree structures, or any kind of map that shows their plans. I never use strict sentence outlines myself, but I believe that all writers can benefit from at least jotting down the plans for their documents.

As they begin work on their final project of the term, students will create visual outlines by designing their own graphic organizers as part of their work. Students are familiar with outlining and graphic organizers from their experiences before college. Both teaching strategies are widely used in K–12. After reviewing their prior knowledge on the topics, students are ready to create their own visual writing tools, as described in the activities below.

Background Readings on Outlines

Background Resources on Graphic Organizers

Class Activities

Think, Pair, Share, and Compare

This activity is a customized version of the active learning strategy Think-Pair-Share, which will help students recall their prior knowledge. Divide the class into two groups. Working independently, have individuals in one group think about and take notes on what they know about outlines while the individuals in the other group focus on graphic organizers. After students have had time to gather their thoughts, have them pair with someone who worked on the same topic. In their pairs, have students review their notes together and talk through their thinking.

Draw the class together as a whole and invites pairs to share their thoughts on how outlines work and then to share their thoughts on how graphic organizers work. Note their ideas on the board. Once all of the ideas have been shared, ask the class to reflect on the information and then compare the two strategies (outlining and graphic organizers). Encourage students to draw conclusions about how the two strategies connect to writing.

To strengthen their understanding of outlining and graphic organizers, ask students to read and review the background readings and resources listed above.

Design Graphic Organizers

Ask students to examine example graphic organizers (linked above) as a class or in small groups and to identify the features of the genre. In particular, encourage students to determine how shapes are used (like text boxes), how lines and arrows are used, and how labels and instructional text is used. Their prior knowledge about graphic organizers should allow students to gather this information in five to ten minutes.

With this information about graphic organizers established, students create graphic organizers for the kinds of writing that they are working on. Ask students to consider what they know about the kind of writing by examining examples and background material about the genre. Students can create graphic organizers independently, or you can walk them through some basic steps by asking questions such as the following:

  • What are the primary sections of the kind of writing you are examining?
  • What are the typical features of those sections?
  • What kind of information usually belongs in the sections?
  • How do the sections relate to one another?

Students can sketch out their graphic organizers on paper, and then use a tool like Canva to create final versions of their organizers. Note that Canva does have a number of existing graphic organizer layouts that students can use as models. Students can also create their graphic organizers in a word processor using the shapes and text box tools.

Do limit the time students spend creating their graphic organizers. The purpose of this activity is to learn more about how a kind of writing works, not to spend hours on images and design.

After students finish their graphic organizers, they can share them with the class for feedback as well as to create a library of graphic organizers that everyone can use. The organizers can be used both for writing projects and to organize the analysis of readings.

Final Thoughts

In my course, students are focusing on different kinds of writing, depending upon their majors and career goals. There is little to no overlap in the graphic organizers they are creating. With a more homogeneous class, students could design graphic organizers in small groups. They might work on the same task or on different aspects of the writing task, such as creating graphic organizers for gathering ideas, research, and beginning a draft.

This activity uses active learning strategies to get beyond customary pen on paper (or text on screen) strategies. Do you have similar assignments that break out of the traditional writing activities? I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below

Photo credit: Page 01: Idea for a talk on white collar work tips for developer types by Michael Coté on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

If you attended CCCC last month, you probably heard a land acknowledgment statement, which offered respect to the indigenous peoples upon whose lands the conference took place. For example, Asao B. Inoue began his #4C19 Keynote (video) with this statement:

To open, I humbly make a land acknowledgment I would like to recognize and acknowledge the indigenous people of this land: the Lenni Lenape, Shawnee, and Hodinöhšönih (hoe-den-ah-show-nee)—the six Nations, that is, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora (tus-ka-roar-ah). We are gathered today on Jö:deogë’ (joan-day-o-gan’t), an Onödowa'ga (ono-do-wah-gah) or Senaca word for Pittsburgh or “between two rivers”: the welhik hane (well-ick hah-neh) and Mënaonkihëla (men-aw-n-gee-ah-luh). These are the Lenape words for the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which translate to the “best flowing river of the hills” and “where the banks cave in and erode.” While a land acknowledgment is not enough, it is an important social justice and decolonial practice that promotes indigenous visibility and a reminder that we are on settled indigenous land. Let this land acknowledgment be an opening for all of us to contemplate a way to join in decolonial and indigenous movements for sovereignty and self-determination.

Virginia Tech Land Acknowledgement PosterI recently added a similar land acknowledgment statement to my course materials, thanking the Tutelo/Monacan people upon whose land Virginia Tech stands. Inspired by a graphic from Northwestern University, I also created the draft image (shown on the right), which I intend to add as a poster on my office door after I receive feedback on whether it is appropriate. I admit it has taken me too long to add these statements to my course materials.

Angela Haas, from Illinois State University, shared the first land acknowledgment statement I ever heard at a Computers and Writing Conference session several years ago. I was impressed by the statement and wished I could add one to my own work. At the time however, I wasn’t sure how to construct a land acknowledgment statement, so I didn’t try. I was and am ashamed of my behavior. I let my privilege as a non-indigenous person serve as an excuse, telling myself it was better to say nothing than to piece together an acknowledgment I wasn’t sure was appropriate.

I want to share some resources readers can use to add a land acknowledgment statement to their publications, events, and course materials.

  • Check your campus for an existing land acknowledgment statement. Check with American Indian and Indigenous Studies student groups, cultural centers, and departments. If such resources do not exist, contact your office of diversity and inclusion. A research librarian at your school can also help. If you are working in Canada, such a statement is likely to already exist, so check with your colleagues.
  • Take advantage of existing resources if you plan to write your own land acknowledgment statement. If a statement does not exist, use the Guide to Indigenous Land and Territorial Acknowledgments for Cultural Institutions from New York University and the #HonorNativeLand Guide from U.S. Department of Arts and Culture to get started. Again, a librarian at your school can also help you find relevant resources.
  • Review land acknowledgment statements from other institutions. Check peer institutions your school uses for benchmarking purposes. Also look for examples from schools and cultural centers from your geographical area, which likely share the same tribal lands you do. These Example Land Acknowledgment Statements demonstrate the range of details and styles used in the genre.
  • Learn how to pronounce the names of the indigenous peoples included in your statement. As Kyllikki Rytov pointed out on the WPA-L listserv, “[I]n terms of erasure, getting names right is paramount.” Land acknowledgments must include pronouncing names with respect. The #4C19 statement above includes parenthetical pronunciation information, which can serve as a model for your own statement. If you are unsure how to pronounce a name, check with local tribal members or with campus American Indian and Indigenous Studies cultural centers, student groups, or departments. Your library’s research staff can also help you find pronunciation information.
  • Ask local tribal members or other experts to review your work. As I suggest in relationship to my image above, you need to check any land acknowledgment statements you create to ensure your words and images are appropriately representative of and respectful of the tribe(s) whose land you are acknowledging. If you have an American Indian and Indigenous Studies cultural center or department, ask them if they can give you feedback.
  • Once you have a land acknowledgment statement, use it and encourage others to use it as well. Open your events with your land acknowledgment statement. Add a land acknowledgment statement to your research and other publications. Include a land acknowledgment statement on your course materials.
  • Remember that a land acknowledgment statement is only the first step. It doesn’t immunize you against social injustice or colonial practices. Examine your reading lists to ensure they include indigenous authors. Include indigenous issues in your discussions. Invite students to explore indigenous readings and events in their work. Encourage them to add land acknowledgment statements to their own projects. Call out actions that demean native peoples. Make the arts, cultures, and concerns of native Indian and indigenous visible in your courses, research, and events.

I hope these resources will help you add a land acknowledgment statement to your work. The documents from the second bullet point include details on why land acknowledgments are important. You can use these resources to help students understand why you use the statements and help them learn strategies to make their work diverse and inclusive.

If you have a land acknowledgment statement you would like added to the Example Land Acknowledgment Statements document, please share it in a comment below. If you have other suggestions for acknowledging indigenous people, please let me know.

Asian woman pointing out information on a laptop during a College of DuPage Poster SessionLast week, I shared a series of active learning strategies focused on design principles, related to a research poster project that students are working on this month. That activity inspired me to consider how I could rethink active learning strategies to discuss design and visual rhetoric.

The result is my new versions of three activities, suited for analysis of a visual document design or a visual artifact (such as a poster). For each task, I explain how the original learning task is used, and then I follow with the prompt that I created for my twist on the strategy.

Active Learning Tasks

Muddiest and Clearest Points

Original: Muddiest-point and clearest-point tasks ask students to reflect on recent information from the class and identify the relevant ideas or concepts. The muddiest point is the idea or concept that the student understands least while the clearest point is the idea or concept that the student understands most fully.

The Twist: Examine the image or document and identify the muddiest point and the clearest point in the visual design. For the muddiest point, identify the place in the visual where the image, the text, or other aspects are hardest to identify and understand. It might be a place where the image is blurred, faded, overexposed, or in shadows. It could be a place where an element is small, cropped off or otherwise incomplete. Once you identify the muddiest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it is minimized in comparison to other aspects of the image or document.

For the clearest point, look for the opposite place, where the image, the text, or other aspect is clearest and easiest to identify and understand. It might be a place that it larger, sharply focused, brighter, or highlighted in some way. Once you identify the clearest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it stands out so clearly in comparison to the other aspects of the image or document.

Four Corners

Original: This active learning strategy relies on the physical layout of the classroom. The teacher sets up a station—with a discussion topic, problem to solve, or issue to debate—in each of the room’s four corners. Students are divided into four groups and rotate through the stations, or they visit only one station and then share the corner’s discussion with the full class.

The Twist: Focus on the four corners of the image or document you are examining. Label them as Top-Left, Top-Right, Bottom-Right, and Bottom-Left. Think about what appears in each corner—text, color, drawings, photographs, shadows, and so forth. In addition to considering what appears in each corner, reflect on aspects such as the size of the elements. Take into account how the content of the four corners relates to the rest of the image or document and how the corners relate to one another. After your analysis of the four corners, hypothesize what the corners contribute to the overall visual design.

Background Knowledge Probe

Original: Background knowledge tasks can take various forms, from freewriting about a previous lesson or experience to a scavenger hunt. The teacher either asks a question that will trigger students to recall prior knowledge about the topic, or the teacher can set up situations that require prior knowledge to complete a task. This strategy tells the teacher what students already know, so she can avoid reviewing information unnecessarily. Further, it helps students recall concepts and ideas that a new lesson will draw upon.

The Twist: Take the idea of a background knowledge probe literally. Examine the image or document, and focus on the background of the design. How does the background differ from the rest of the image or document? Does it complement the foreground? Does it provide a contrast? Is it a simple, blank canvas, or does it add information to the message? Based on your examination of the image or document, explain how the background contributes to the overall visual.

Final Thoughts

Like the active learning strategies that I shared last week, the three active learning strategies above ask students to look at the design of an image or document from different perspectives. By focusing on a specific area of the visual message, students isolate how the various parts of the visual contribute to its overall message.

Do you use active learning strategies in the classroom? How do you ask students to examine the way that visual design contributes to a message? If you have classroom activities to share, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below to tell me about your strategies.

 

 

Image credit: See Writing Differently 2018 7 by COD Newsroom on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Open design sampler demonstrating the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximityMy students are beginning research posters this week, so the course is returning to information on effective design and in particular the design principles of Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. In today’s post, I’ll share the active learning tasks I’m using to ask students to recall prior knowledge and give them hands-on work with the design principles.

Active learning tasks ask students to engage directly in their learning process by “involving [them] in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison 1991).

A simplified explanation of this teaching strategy compares students' minds to sponges and to mechanical gears. Passive learning strategies, such as lectures, treat the student’s mind like a sponge, ready to absorb ideas as it creates a repository of information. It aligns well with Paulo Freire’s banking model of education. Active learning strategies, alternately, engage the student’s brain as if it were a machine made of interlocking gears, turning and churning as it tests hypotheses and creates knowledge.

The series of tasks I describe below asks students to recall what they know about the design principles, to apply the principles through several analysis activities, and to forecast how they will use the principles in their research posters.

Background Readings and Resources

Basic Activity Logistics

The course includes weekly writing and revision activities that students complete individually and in groups. Discussion prompts and related activities are posted as weekly activities. Since I teach a fully-online course, this work is submitted as a discussion post to me in the course management software. These tasks are much like the in-class activities that would be part of a face-to-face course.

The tasks below give you the short version of the prompt. I add more specific details on how to post, share, and reply to one another in the assignments shared with students.

Active Learning Tasks

Design Principles Scavenger Hunt

Go on a hunt on campus or online for a good or bad visual. It can be any kind of visual—a digital sign, a full-page ad in a magazine, a billboard, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be a research poster. Here’s one way to find a visual for this discussion: Find a bulletin board on campus. Stand across the hall from it, and identify the one piece on the bulletin board that grabs your attention.

Take a photo of the visual you find or save the visual if you found it online. Add a paragraph that tells us why it is a good visual or a bad one. Use the ideas from the textbook to support your ideas.

Design Principles Prescription

You are the Design Doctor. Choose a visual from the Design Principles Scavenger Hunt or one that you have found elsewhere, and consider how well the visual uses the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Respond in three parts:

  1. Describe how the visual uses the design principles.
  2. Diagnose the design shortcomings of the visual.
  3. Prescribe solutions that will improve the visual.

Positive Application Task

Choose a visual from a previous project in the course or one that you are planning to use in your research poster. Annotate the visual with details on how you have used the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Label features of the visual with arrows that pair with related descriptions and explanations of the design principles. Use Figure 11.1 on pages 251–52 of Technical Communication as the model for your response.

Research Poster Design Plan

Based on what you know about the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, create a design plan for your research poster.

  1. Brainstorm a list of ideas you want to emphasize in your poster.
  2. Apply design principles to the ideas, indicating strategies you can use to highlight the content on your poster.
  3. Create a style sheet for your poster, outlining the design decisions you have made. For instance, your style sheet should cover information such as the following:
    • What font and font size will you use for regular text?
    • What font and font size will you use for Level 1 headings? Level 2 headings?
    • What colors will you use on the poster, and where will you use them?

Final Thoughts

These four active learning activities seem relatively simple on the surface; however, they build on one another to lead students to recall how the design principles work and then apply those principles to their own work. What strategies do you use to encourage students to apply composing and design strategies to their own work? Please tell me by leaving a comment below.

References

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (30th Anniversary edition; M. B. Ramos, trans.). New York: Continuum.

 

Photo credit: The Open University Brand Design Guidelines by DAMS Library, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

African American woman scientist, reading a book, with lab equipment in the background
African American woman scientist, with lab equipment in the background

I tried an experiment in my online classes this week. Spring Break begins this weekend. Students are working on recommendation reports, the major research document of the term. Their work on these reports is spread over four weeks. The week of Spring Break falls in the middle, as shown in this schedule:

Week ofActivities
February 25Begin research for recommendation report
March 4Finish research and sketch plans for report
March 11Spring Break
March 18Create rough draft of report
March 25Finish and submit final version of report

I ask students to complete a Progress Report before they leave for Spring Break. The assignment requires them to take stock of the work they’ve completed and the work they still need to do. When they return to their projects after break, their progress reports help them know where to resume their work on the project.

The progress report assignment is due the Friday before Spring Break starts, so March 8th this year. The three-day grace period for the assignment creates a challenge, however. I don’t count the days of Spring Break, so the grace period ends the first day students are back on campus, March 18 this year. While I intend for students to complete the progress reports before they leave, the grace period ensures that their grades are not harmed if they wait until they return.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to entice, encourage, and, let’s face it, beg students to complete their progress reports before they leave. I argue that the strategy will make their work easier and more efficient when they return to classes, but the lure of leaving early for that week off from classes wins out. Typically only five or six students turn the report in ahead of time, and a few more will turn it in during Spring Break. Most students submit it when they return.

This week, I tried a different strategy by appealing to their interest in higher grades. In short, I tried a bribe. If they turned in their progress reports by 11:59 PM on Friday the 8th, they can earn up to 125 points. If they turn in their report any later, they can earn no more than 100 points. The course is graded on accumulated points. The extra points matter, but no one is punished for using the grace period.

The result is that 26 students turned in their progress reports before leaving town, significantly more than the typical five or six. There is still room for improvement, as those 26 students represent only 31% of the enrollment. I’m making progress though, so bribery seems like it was a good choice.

What do you do to convince students to make the best choices? Have you tried bribing them? Do you have other strategies that work? I would love to hear from you. After all, I need to convince that 69% of the classes who didn’t turn in their progress reports. To share your ideas, just leave me a comment below.

Photo credit: “African American woman, half-length portrait, facing left, reading book,” Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two students working at a table near bookshelves in a libraryLast week, I shared an activity encouraging students to move beyond using a Google search to find research. This week’s activity asks students to check the resources they have found for variety.

As was the case last week, Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg’s 2010 article “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students” inspired the activity. Head and Eisenberg found that students typically searched only for the kinds of sources required by the assignment. For instance, if the assignment asks students to find two books and an online source, students find only those items.

Instead of prescribing sources for students’ work, this week’s activity asks students to look for variety in their sources and provide brief annotations that explain how they will use the sources.

In the activity as shown below, I removed some information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. The five kinds of research sources came from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your course textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.

Checking for Variety in Research Sources

Review the information in the section on “Types of Secondary Research Sources” (pp. 123) in Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication. The section discusses the following five kinds of sources:

  • Books (including ebooks)
  • Periodicals: Journals and Magazines
  • Newspapers and online news sources
  • Government documents
  • Websites and social media

Checking for Variety

  1. For each type of research sources above, list the sources you have found so far that fall in the category, using the example to guide your answers. Include the following information for each source:
    • Bibliographic citation, using whatever format is appropriate for your field (e.g., Electrical engineers use IEEE).
    • A one-sentence (or fragment) summary of the information included in the source.
    • Details on how you plan to use the source in your project.
  2. Once you list all of the sources that you have found, evaluate whether your sources show variety, using the following questions:
    • How many different kinds of sources you have found? If a type of secondary research source is not appropriate for your project, explain why.
    • How varied are the sources in each category? Consider the author(s), publisher, publication date, and other relevant factors.
  3. Review your audience analysis for the project, and state the kinds of research sources your readers will expect in your document. Explain how your sources meet the audience’s expectations.
  4. Explain whether the research sources you found show variety, using specific details.
  5. If your sources do not demonstrate variety, set additional research goals to find more secondary sources. Specifically state the additional kinds of sources you will look for in a paragraph or list.
  6. Review your answer to make sure it uses business-appropriate spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Students are still working on this activity, so I don’t have results to share. I hope students will develop a habit of examining their research for variety. By having them include annotations that indicate how they will use the sources, students should move beyond variety simply for the sake of variety. Their choices have to be useful to their projects. I’m looking forward to reading their responses.

I would love to hear your responses to the activity too. Please leave me a comment below telling me your thoughts or sharing strategies that you use when teaching research projects.

Photo credit: A place to study. by San José Public Library on Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Overhead shot of a white woman doing research on a library computerWhen I create an assignment, I intend the information I include about research requirements to suggest starting points and to encourage exploration. Instead, students probably use that information to determine the bare minimum required, doing only the research described instead of jumping off into deeper exploration.

Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (2010) examined “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students,” finding that students use assignments less as a guide and more as a road map. If the assignment handout calls for three sources, students use only three sources. Directed by the assignment handout to use at least two books and an online site, students meet the requirement and find little or no more.

In an earlier study, Head and Eisenberg (2009) reported that “Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first for course-related research assignments. Likewise, Google and Wikipedia were the go-to sites for everyday life research for nearly every respondent” (3).

I’m left with a conundrum: I want students to look beyond the course textbooks, Google, and Wikipedia, but I don’t want to prescribe the kinds and number of resources they should consult. My ultimate goal is to teach students how to thoroughly research a topic on their own, choosing the best tools to use and gathering relevant sources for their research projects.

I designed the following activity to kick off students’ research. In it, I ask students to evaluate the available research tools and then plan how to use those tools to conduct their research project.

The activity below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. I took the six kinds of research tools from a list from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your own textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.

Finding Useful Research Tools for Your Project

The section on “Understanding Research Tools” (pp. 121–122) in Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication discusses the following six kinds of resources you can consult when you conduct research:

  • Library catalogs
  • Online databases
  • Newspaper and periodical indexes
  • Abstract services
  • Web search engines
  • Reference works

For each of the six research tools, provide the information below. Your answer will map out how you will conduct research for your project.

Step 1: Determine the Usefulness of the Research Tools

Indicate how each of the six research tools is (or isn’t) appropriate for your research project by responding to the following questions.

  1. What specific research tools in the category are available for your topic? For example, name the online databases that are appropriate for your topic.
  2. What kind of information are you likely to find using the particular tool?
  3. How relevant is the information to your research project?
  4. Based on your evaluation, how appropriate is the kind of tool for your research project?

Step 2: Plan Your Use of the Research Tools

For each tool that is appropriate for your research project, explain specifically how you will use the tool.

  1. What keywords will you use with each tool?
  2. What kind of research sources will you look for with each tool?
  3. How will you manage the sources that you find? In other words, indicate how you will save or borrow the sources.

The answers to these questions may be similar for the different research tools. Try using a table to organize the information to simplify your response. You do not need to use full sentences for Step 2.

I’ll supplement this activity with links to some specific resources from the campus library, such as these Research Guides for Various Subject Areas. I will also suggest that students consult a librarian for help.

I think my assignment meets my goal. It encourages students to research beyond the familiar sources like their textbook and Google. At the same time, it guides students toward easily accessible resources without telling them exactly what to do. Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to report on the specific resources they have discovered.

Do you have an activity to share that helps students engage in deeper exploration when they conduct a research project? I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about it by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit: All She’s Armed With Is Research. by Markus Binzegger on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Recently I needed a resource to help students understand brainstorming. I knew that they generally understood the idea, but I wanted to encourage them to try some new strategies and stretch their invention skills a little. After a few disappointing Google search results, I found myself at the “Tips & Tools” page of the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center site.

There, I found perfect resources to share with students, including a Brainstorming tip sheet and this Webbing video:

I quickly realized that the site had much more to offer. The “Tips & Tools” page features nearly a hundred resources, organized into four categories:

  • Writing the Paper
  • Citation, Style, and Sentence Level Concerns
  • Specific Writing Assignments for Contexts
  • Writing for Specific Fields

The handouts range from ideas on Thesis Statements to basic strategies for working on a Dissertation. Some of the resources focus on general writing advice, such as dealing with Procrastination and Writing Anxiety. Others address topics frequently heard in the writing classroom, like how to use Gender-Inclusive Language and ways to work with Writing Groups effectively.

Perhaps one of the best things about the site is that the handouts are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License. That means, as the site explains in the footer, “You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” If you need a supplement for your class or a specific student, these “Tips & Tools” have you covered.

Have you found an online resource that is particularly helpful in the writing classroom? Please share your recommendations in the comments below. I’d love to see the sites you use with students.

Screenshot from Practical Strategies in Technical Communication showing a Thinking Visually featureI love the “Thinking Visually” resources in Mike Markel’s Practical Strategies for Technical Communication (2nd ed.). The example shown in the screenshot on the right outlines the six major characteristics of a technical document.

As you flip through the pages of the textbook, these full-page graphics stand out, catching students’ attention with their strong contrast and reader-friendly presentation of the information explored in more detail in the text.

The textbook’s “Preface for Instructors” explains the goal of this new feature:

Reflecting the increasingly visual nature of today’s learners and of technical communication itself, the Second Edition includes new “Thinking Visually” graphics, developed with feedback from instructors. This feature provides an accessible, modern take on key principles and concepts throughout the text.

The feature this quick summary presents definitely stands out, even in a highly visual textbook like this one.

[NOTE: The “Thinking Visually” infographics mentioned in this post are available in the short version of the text (mentioned above), Practical Strategies for Technical Communication.They are not included in the full version of the text, Technical Communication.]

I decided to create my own infographic resources to persuade students to think visually about the concepts in Technical Communication. I’m starting with documentation. Students struggle typically struggle with that topic, and its coverage in most textbooks is dense and text-heavy.

I began with this page (shown as an image) on the question, “Why Use Documentation?” It is also available as a Google Doc or a PDF to provide full accessibility to students.

Image of the Why Use Documentation? page

The three reasons that documentation is important listed in the resource come from the Appendix on “Documenting Your Sources.” The infographic is rather simple, but I hope clear and direct—just like those from Practical Strategies for Technical Communication. Tell me what you think. I plan to make several more before students begin their major research projects in a few weeks, so I can definitely use some feedback. Just leave me a comment below.

 

NOTE: Practical Strategies for Technical Communication has just been published (2019) in a third edition, but I only have access to the second edition presently. The “Thinking Visually” are included in the third edition as well.

Black student working at laptop outsideFor students to do well in the courses I teach, they have to understand how the course software works. Since the courses are 100% online, the spaces that our course software creates become the classroom where we interact. If students cannot get to those spaces or do not fully understand how they work, they can fail the course.

Given this potential, I make time for software instruction, no matter how packed the course is with subject area content and related work. Generally, I approach software instruction as needed to complete activities in the course. For instance, I talk about how to use banded rows to increase table readability as students work on an assignment that requires creating a table. The software instruction is directly tied to doing well on the activity, so students are motivated to learn the related technical skills.

The challenge is knowing when students will need help with the software that doesn’t relate to specific assignments. Students come to the course with a variety of experience, so I cannot assume that they all need the same instruction. I encourage students to help themselves by linking to the documentation from course materials. Beyond that, I’ve relied on two strategies:

  • Wait until someone asks.
  • Look for patterns that suggest students need help.

In both cases, I either provide a link to the documentation or provide a customized explanation with video or screenshots. These techniques work, but I’d like to do more.

This term, I decided to focus on software instruction from the first day of classes. I gave students a curated list of links to the student guide to the software. Focusing on the commands and tools that I knew students needed for the course reduced the number of documentation links 90%, from 241 to 24 links. No longer do students have to search through pages and pages of information to find what they need—and I benefit from linking to the official documentations, which I don’t have to maintain.

I asked students to read through the entire list. I don’t expect them to memorize the list or click on every link. I just want them to remember there was a resource that listed the main tools they need to use in the course. After skimming through the list, they chose at least one software task to learn more about. I asked students to read the details in the documentation and then try the tool.

For extra points, students could post a reply describing what they found in their exploration. To my happy surprise, the activity yielded 75 replies. Students explored a variety of tools, focusing on whatever interested them. Repeatedly, students explained that they had found some capability in the software that they never knew existed.

Will students remember everything they read? Undoubtedly not, but they do know where to find details on the key commands they need for the course. Since this was the first activity in the course, students and I can draw on it for the entire term. Overall, it seems like a successful strategy that I hope to continue using.

How do you make time for software instruction in your courses? What resources do you share with students? Tell me about the strategies you use by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo Credit: _MG_3783 by VIA Agency on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This week, I have a short post on a great resource (and one related class activity) that I found on Twitter as I was reading through messages with the #womeninTC hashtag. The TC stands for Technical Communication. The hashtag is a great source of ideas, articles, and support for those of us who teach technical writing.

Here’s the Tweet from Dr. Amelia Cheley (@plaidsicle) that inspired this post, with a transcript following:

Image of Chesley's Tweet, transcript follows

Transcript, with capitalization consistent with the original:

dr. amelia chesley (@plaidsicle): for the first day of class this week, I had my tech com students analyze several random, real memos (including this one lettersofnote.com/2010/08/star-t...) and then each compose a random, imaginary memo themselves. I am loving what they've come up with so far! #womenintc [3:26 PM 16 Jan 2019]

The activity sounded like fun, so I immediately clicked through to see the STAR TREK/Casting memo. Not only did I find an entertaining memo, but I was sucked into the website’s assortment of letters, memos, and other notes from the famous, the infamous, and the unknown. It is a rich collection of primary material that could be used in many classes, not just in technical writing.

My imagination is spinning with the options. I’m sure I will have some specific writing activities to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’m going to end with a list of ten favorites from the site:

  1. SEVEN LITTLE MEN HELP A GIRL
  2. Subject: Toilet Paper
  3. SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO PLAYERS
  4. Gee whiz, that master alarm certainly startled me
  5. On bureaucratese and gobbledygook
  6. IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER
  7. Is there a space program which we could win?
  8. The Tiger Oil Memos
  9. To All Potty-Mouthed Inbetweeners
  10. I was ready to sink into the earth with shame

As you wander through the site, I am sure you will find something entertaining. Let me know what you find, and share any ideas you have for using the site. Just leave me a comment below.

Six warning signs, all stating 'Keep Out - Zombie Infected Area'I kicked off Spring semester with some discussion questions meant to work as icebreakers. Two of the prompts are fairly typical: one asks students to talk about an object significant to their careers, and the other asks students to brainstorm characteristics of technical writing based on their experience and observations.

As an alternative to those two fairly customary discussion topics, I devised this third, more playful prompt, “Your Career and the Zombie Apocalypse”:

Imagine that the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. The walking dead are bearing down upon your part of the country, and everyone in the world is working to stop them and preserve life in the world as it was before the zombie awakening. As a way to introduce yourself to the class, write a reply that tells us the following: 

  1. your major and career goal (i.e., what do you want to be when you graduate?).
  2. what one thing people in your career can do right now* to stop the zombies.
  3. how that one thing will be effective.

*In other words, this one thing needs to be a capability that your career already has. You cannot make up some solution that does not exist. That would be too easy :)

I’m delighted to report that the Zombies Discussion has been the most popular by far. Even more significant to me, students’ responses are showing a wonderful level of creative and analytical thinking. For instance, one computer science major suggested creating programs that analyze live video streams, comparing appearance and movements to what zombies look like and the ways that zombies walk in order to determine when zombies are near. Not a bad solution, I think. Even better, however, were the replies . One student asked how the program would tell the difference between zombies and people in zombie costumes. Another wondered how the program would differentiate between zombies and people with mobility issues, like senior citizens or people with injuries or disabilities.

Other students have talked about military drone strikes, protecting information systems, security of the water supply, crowdsourcing reports of outbreaks, social media survivor networks, cures and vaccinations, DNA modification, landscape barriers, and more.

Zombies aren’t really my thing, but the success of this icebreaker has convinced me that they have a place in this course. I am even wondering about an all-Zombie section of technical writing. Imagine the assignment opportunities:

  • Technical Description of a Zombie
  • Instructions for Trapping a Zombie
  • Directives for Zombie Safety
  • Zombie Sighting Field Report
  • Zombie Incident Reports
  • Recommendation Report on a Zombie Apocalypse Solution

There are so many options—and a good bit of fun to be had. I swear I would try this next term if we had a way to advertise a special focus section of technical writing on my campus. Who knew that an icebreaker would be so inspiring?

What kinds of icebreakers do you use? More importantly, are there zombies in your writing classroom? Leave me a comment below to tell me about your classes. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Photo Credit: Zombie Zone by Michel Curi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Sad Kitten, with its head leaning on its paw, and the caption, What a Cat-astrope! Why did I plagiarize?!Every term, I end up turning in a few students for violations of the Honor Code. It sucks. I don’t like filling out the paperwork. I don’t like the feeling that students try to trick me. The students involved are all definitely unhappy.

The most typical violation has been copying passages from sources word-for-word without any citation—without even quotation marks for that matter. When challenged, most students have responded that they didn’t realize citations and quotation marks were required. I certainly understand errors in bibliographic format. That kind of error is easy to make, especially when citation styles change every few years. It concerns me, however, that students can get to Junior and Senior standing at college without understanding how basic documentation of quotations works.

Given what I have been seeing, I have stepped up my documentation lessons to take on the issue directly. Students read the information on research and documentation from their textbook. In my case, that includes the following from Markel & Selber’s Technical Communication:

  • Chapter 6: Researching Your Subject
  • Chapter 7: Organizing Your Information
  • Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes
  • Part B: Documenting Your Sources

I also have students review the resources available on the Virginia Tech Honor System website:

In addition to this basic instruction, I asked students to discuss the intricacies of academic research in the class’s online forum. To get the conversation started, I asked students to read through the questions and answers on the Academic Honesty Quiz from the University of Rochester. After reviewing the quiz, I asked students to consider these questions, noting that they did not need to address every quiz question in their responses:

  • Do your agree with their results?
  • Would you offer a different answer?
  • Are there more options than the quiz suggests? What are they?
  • What would you do if you were the teacher involved?
  • What questions about plagiarism (or other academic dishonesty) do you have that aren’t discussed in the quiz?

Some of the situations in the quiz are relatively straightforward, but others led students to question policy and academic responsibility. The questions related to notes falling out from under a desk and failing to log off a computer in particular resulted in engaged conversation.

I will definitely use this discussion strategy again next term. I may also add some infographic representations of some of the basic principles that students should follow. The textbook and Honor System readings are long and dense. Highlighting some of those points in a more visual format should help emphasis the concepts. What do you do to help students understand the principles and ethics of academic research? How do you demonstrate and discuss documentation? Tell me about your practices or leave a question in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Image credit: Meme generated on the ICanHasCheezburger site.

People examining research posters at a poster sessionThe last assignment in my Incubator series is a research poster, designed to test students’ understanding of document design and audience. The activity focuses on the same topic as the White Paper Assignment students worked on for the penultimate writing project. The assignment has two underlying goals:

  • Students will recast the information from their white papers for a different audience and purpose.
  • Students will focus on visual design to communicate their messages.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in Technical Communication.

Research Poster Assignment

Background

You will design a poster presentation, based on the details in your white paper. Your poster will be part of a poster session that the incubator sponsors for the local community. Like the white paper, the presentation will focus on the incubator goal of public outreach and education. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

The Scenario

This week, you received the following memo explaining details on your company’s participation in the December poster presentation event:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

 

   Interoffice Memo

 

 

 

To:December Poster Presentation Participants
From:Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director
Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the Public Outreach Office
Subject:Preparing Your Research Poster
Date:October 29, 2018

 

Now that you have your white papers well under way, it’s time to begin work on your research posters for the December poster presentation. We have invited 250 local business, university, and community leaders to the upcoming event. Members of the general public can also attend.

Your poster presentation (like your white paper) is due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date].

Research Poster Purpose and Audience

Your research poster focuses on the same purpose as your white paper. As explained in the call for proposals, your research poster will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your poster will contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education.

As an objective research poster, your document will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company—or even a combination of both goals.

The audience for your poster presentation differs slightly from that of your white paper. You will communicate your research to the general public, university community, and potential investors and clients who will attend the session.

Poster Content

Your research poster will define or explain your topic and discuss it with the goal of informing your readers about it fully and with relevant, specific details. To follow the customary poster presentation structure, you need to shape the information into a Problem-Solution organization. Imagine that your topic either is a problem or a solution to a problem, and then discuss how to solve it or how it solves the problem.

For instance, for a white paper that focuses on best password management strategies, the problem for your research poster would be password hacking and security. The solution would be your password management strategies.

You should focus on this structure for your poster:

  • Introduction
  • Problem Discussion
  • Solution(s)
  • Conclusions & Recommendations
  • Works Cited

You should present the information in your report objectively; that is, without letting opinion shape what you have to say. Its goal is to provide a response to the question "What is [your subject] all about?" This doesn't mean you can't present opinions about it, but those opinions must come from experts in the field. For example, Expert A thinks the subject of your article is a fantastic option for reducing the need to irrigate crops, but Expert B is sure it won't work as planned. You can present these opposing viewpoints, and draw conclusions about why one option is preferred.

Poster Presentation Expectations

  • Size: 48" X 36", presented in landscape orientation (horizontal). The size is absolute, based on our display boards.
  • Document Design: Use a polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. Must use appropriately-sized headings, text, and images. People need to be able to see your work.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include as many relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, illustrations, graphs, tables) as necessary to present your ideas. Avoid clipart (which typically looks unpolished or unprofessional), and use only graphical elements that directly relate to the information in the presentation. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including short, relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.ppt, *pptx, or Google Slides link.

Deadlines

To ensure that we have time to review and edit your submission, please submit your research poster by 11:59 PM on Monday, November 26. If additional time is necessary, you can take advantage of the grace period, which ends at 11:59 PM on Thursday, November 29.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let either of us know or contact Traci’s assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the topic and audiences, as established in your proposal.
Your proposal should have the basic starting information that you need to begin work on your research poster.

Step 2: Examine the information about research posters in the readings.
Review the following readings for specific details on the information and details to include in your research poster:

Step 3: Examine the information about presentations in the readings.
The textbook provides complete details on how to write proposals. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Use “Figure 18.1 A Problem-Solving Model for Recommendation Reports” (on page 474 of Markel & Selber) to structure your information.
  • Follow the advice in the “Ethics Note: Presenting Honest Recommendations” (on page 477 of Markel & Selber) to ensure your poster meets the ethical requirements of your field.
  • Review the “Checklist for Preparing and Presenting an Effective Research Posters” [sic] (starting on page 326 of Miller) to determine the information to include on your poster.
  • Follow the extensive advice in “Best Practices for Effective Scientific Posters” to arrange your content, design your work, and polish your presentation.
  • Use the details in “Appendix Part B: Documenting Your Sources” for information on APA citation style (starting on page 622 of Markel & Selber) and information on IEEE citation style (starting on page 639 of Markel & Selber) to gather relevant details for your documentation and citations. Note that you may alternately use the citation style that is relevant for your field if you prefer.

Step 3: Write and design your poster.

Work steadily on your poster for the entire two-week period. Do not leave the work until the last minute!
Create your research poster, as requested in The Scenario above, with all of the details you have gathered in your research. Remember that your poster should be a factual and objective document. Do not include fictional information about your topic. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions.

 

As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 4: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for your research poster. Review your project, using the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 5: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 6: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your research poster to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 11/08 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your research poster by November 9. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 7: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 11/08 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by November 12 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 8: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 9: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Research Poster finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 2 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Research Posters

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions:

  • Has a clear, compelling title that is specific to the poster.
  • Adopts a tone and approach that will appeal to readers.
  • Demonstrates a clear understanding of the research literature on this topic.
  • Provides details and explanation of the information arranged in this structure:
    • Introduction
    • Problem Discussion
    • Solution(s)
    • Conclusions & Recommendations
    • Works Cited
  • Relies on sources that are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear.
  • Uses quotations from research sources to support and strengthen the project.
  • Includes presentation graphics that meet these five characteristics (see Markel & Selber, pp. 587–589):
    • It presents a clear, well-supported claim.
    • It is easy to see.
    • It is easy to read.
    • It is simple.
    • It is correct.
    • It is either your own work or meets fair use guidelines.
  • Provides accurate and complete in-text citations for all information that is not the author’s own work (including information that is paraphrased, quoted, and summarized).
  • Includes a Works Cited section (e.g., bibliography) that does the following:
    • identifies each source cited in the poster
    • contains complete and accurate information for each citation.
    • uses either APA citation style or the preferred citation style for your major.
  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text.

 

Students were generally successful with this assignment. Aside from errors in the size or shape of the posters, the most typical challenges related to the balance between words and visual elements and the design issues such as the font size. When I teach the genre again, I will spend more time on design, to help students learn how little changes can make a significant difference. I am thinking of an activity where students are given the content for the poster and work on how to design the piece as a possibility.

Now that the term has come to an end, students have worked their way through all of these assignments. The different activities connected relatively well, but the projects had the typical issues that I see when assignments are not as authentic as possible. Specifically, the imaginary companies that students created were not always an exact match for the projects. Additionally, students were required to make up information for some of the writing projects. In more authentic writing scenarios, all the details would be established and known. There is still value in the Incubator idea, but I need to do some more development to help ensure students succeed. If you have any ideas that will help me revise any of the assignments, please leave me a comment below.

 

 

Photo credit: Digital humanities poster session by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Asian woman working at a macintosh commercialThis term, I designed a new assignment for the major report in my technical writing course. Students focus on communicating a technical subject to an audience unfamiliar with their fields. Additionally, they must integrate readability features in their document design to give their documents a polished, professional appearance.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in Technical Communication. 

White Paper Assignment

Background

You will write an informational report for non-experts (a white paper) that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

You proposed the topic for your White Paper Project in your Short Proposal. Your Poster Presentation Project will provide an alternate presentation of the information in your White Paper Project.

The Scenario

This week, you received the following memo, accepting your proposal for the Incubator’s December White Paper Publication:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

 

   Interoffice Memo

 

 

 

To:December White Paper Authors
From:Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director
Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the Public Outreach Office
Subject:Preparing Your White Paper
Date:October 8, 2018

 

Congratulations! We are pleased to accept your proposal for a white paper and research poster for December publication. We look forward to learning more about your topic and working with you to share the information with the public on our website.

Your white paper and poster presentation are due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date] and will ultimately be published as PDFs in the December 2018 release on the Incubator website.

Today, we are sharing details on the expectations for your white paper. We will send details on the research poster later this month.

White Paper Purpose and Audience

As explained in the call for proposals, your white paper will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your documents will also contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education by adding to our growing library of documents that inform website readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

As an objective white paper, your document will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company—or even a combination of both goals.

The audience for the white paper is the general public and the university community Readers with no background in your field should be able to fully understand your white paper.

White Paper Content

Your report will define or explain your topic with the goal of informing your readers about it fully and with relevant, specific details. You should focus on answering questions such as these:

  • What is it?
  • When was it invented or discovered and by whom?
  • Where did it originate and why?
  • What does it involve?
  • How does it work?
  • What is its possibility or potential impact on the future?

You should present the information in your report objectively, that is, without letting opinion shape what you have to say. Do not draw conclusions, make recommendations, argue for one side or the other, or in any way take a position on the subject. Its goal is to provide a response to the question "What is [your subject] all about?" This doesn't mean you can't present opinions about it, but those opinions must come from experts in the field. For example, Expert A thinks the subject of your article is a fantastic option for reducing the need to irrigate crops, but Expert B is sure it won't work as planned. You can present these opposing viewpoints, but you must remain objective and let readers make their own decisions.

White Paper Expectations

  • Length: 25 pages or less. The length typically depends upon the document layout. If your white paper looks like a double-spaced research paper, it will be longer than a white paper that is formatted in single-spaced columns and sidebars (more like an industry magazine or journal article).
  • Document Design: Use a polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. You are encouraged to use a non-traditional format that incorporates sidebars, columns, and other visually-interesting design strategies. Do not include a cover page.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, diagrams, graphs, tables). Avoid clipart (which typically looks unpolished or unprofessional), and use only graphical elements that directly relate to the information in the white paper. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.doc, *.docx, *.pdf, or Google Document link. While your document will be published on the Incubator website, it will be published as a PDF (not as HTML).

Deadlines

To ensure that we have time to review and edit your submission, please submit your white paper by 11:59 PM on Monday, November 26. If additional time is necessary, you can take advantage of the grace period, which ends at 11:59 PM on Thursday, November 29.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let either of us know or contact Traci’s assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you'd like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the topic and audiences, as established in your proposal.
Your proposal should have the basic starting information that you need to begin the research for your white paper. Be sure that you have a strong, well-focused topic before you begin your research.

Step 2: Examine the information about white papers in the readings.
Review the assigned readings for specific details on the information and details to include in your white paper.

Step 3: Begin your research, taking notes and paying attention to documentation and citation details.
The textbook provides complete details on how to conduct your research and keep track of your notes and sources. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Follow the instructions in the “GUIDELINES: Researching a Topic” list (starting on page 119 of Markel & Selber) to gather information.
  • Identify the best kinds of sources for your research by exploring the examples in “TABLE 6.1 Research Questions and Methods” (starting on page 120 of Markel & Selber).
  • Assess your sources with the “GUIDELINES: Evaluating Print and Online Sources” (starting on page 128 of Markel & Selber) to ensure your sources meet the evaluation criteria listed in the text (e.g., that they are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear, as stated above the guidelines). You should also consult the web resource Evaluating Web Resources: The CRAAP test from North Carolina A&T.
  • Use the “GUIDELINES: Conducting an Interview” (starting on page 137 of Markel & Selber) if you talk with experts in your field (on campus or off) who provide information for your projects.
  • Review the information in “Appendix Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes” (starting on page 613 of Markel & Selber) to be sure that you use the notetaking strategies of paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing accurately.
  • Use the details in “Appendix Part B: Documenting Your Sources” for information on APA citation style (starting on page 622 of Markel & Selber) and information on IEEE citation style (starting on page 639 of Markel & Selber) to gather relevant details for your documentation and citations. Note you may alternately use the citation style that is relevant for your field if you prefer.

Step 4: Write your white paper.

Work steadily on your report for the entire three-week period. Do not leave the work until the last minute!
Compose your white paper, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered in your research. Remember that your white paper should be a factual and objective document. Do not include fictional information about your topic. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions.

 

As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for your white paper. Review your project, using the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 6: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 20. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 24 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 2 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For White Papers

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions:

  • Has a clear, compelling title that is specific to the document.
  • Adopts a tone and approach that will appeal to readers.
  • Demonstrates a clear understanding of the research literature on this topic.
  • Provides details and explanation of the information that
    • Presents an objective summary of the facts.
    • Discusses the importance of these facts.
    • Forecasts the importance of these facts in the future.
  • Relies on sources that are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear.
  • Uses quotations from research sources to support and strengthen the project.
  • Provides accurate and complete in-text citations for all information that is not the author’s own work (including information that is paraphrased, quoted, and summarized).
  • Includes a references section (e.g., bibliography) that does the following:
    • identifies each source cited in the white paper.
    • contains complete and accurate information for each citation.
    • uses either APA citation style or the preferred citation style for your major.
  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text. 

 

This assignment was challenging for students, who were less familiar with the genre than they typically are with more generic technical reports. The demands of an audience of non-experts complicated the assignment for some students who were unaccustomed to explaining the concepts and technical lingo of their field. Those aspects made for a rewarding project. When I use the assignment again however, I want to have more supporting resources for students to draw on. Specifically, students would benefit from more examples and some explicit instruction on document design for this genre.

Based on these white papers, students next work on research posters. I’ll share that assignment in my next post, so be sure to come back for the details. If you have any feedback on this assignment or useful resources on white papers, please leave me a comment below.

 

 

Photo credit: Dawa deep in pixel thought by Juhan Sonin on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.