Science:Science Writing Resources/Learning Strategies for Communicating Science

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Getting the Most from Tutorial Sessions

Making the Most of Your Tutorial Sessions

Time with a tutor is always time well spent, but you can take additional steps before, during, and after meeting your tutor, to ensure that you get the most out of your session.

Remember that meeting with a tutor won’t guarantee success, and you are still the one responsible for the assignment. The tutor is a guide/coach for you, and you will need to actively engage with them during the session as well as act on their advice or suggestions after the session in order to fully benefit from your time with the tutor.

Before meeting with your tutor:

  • Set a goal for your time together. One goal per session allows you to stay focused and use your time within the session wisely. What is the most important thing you’d like to cover in your session?
  • Reflect on what is challenging about your project or the subject you are working in and make notes. Through this process, you may realize that what you thought was the issue – for example, many writers consider grammar to be their main challenge – isn’t. The issue may have more to do with process than content, or with your comfort level with the subject; tutors can help you address any type of concern with your writing but will be able to do so more efficiently if you come prepared.
  • Which part(s) of your assignment or writing sample do you want clarification or feedback on? If you are looking for specific feedback on your writing, identify the parts of your assignment you want to discuss in advance of your session.
  • Make some notes about the process you use when faced with the type of work you are seeing a tutor about. This will help both you and the tutor see what may be working well for you and where your process may need to change. What steps have you taken in your assignment so far? Have you completed something similar before?
  • Write down any questions you have so that you don’t forget to ask them.

During the meeting with your tutor:

  • Stay focused. Leave your stress outside of the session, and keep your goal central to your time with your tutor.
  • Communicate your goal for the session, and any over-arching learning goals, with your tutor right away. If you don’t have a goal, take some time with the tutor right away to set one. Tutors are there to support you, and can do so more efficiently if you set your focus for the session.
  • Communicate your needs clearly to your tutor. For example, if you need the tutor to speak slowly so that you can take comprehensive notes, let them know; if you need lots of examples, let them know that as well. Tutors are happy to accommodate and the session will go more smoothly for both of you if you let them know your needs up front.
  • Listen to your tutor, even if their advice isn’t what you expected (or wanted) to hear. They have a different perspective from yours, and even if you are sceptical about their advice, you may be surprised by the results once you apply it. Remember that it is very difficult for anyone to be objective about their own writing strengths and weaknesses, so don’t be surprised or take things personally if your tutor outlines areas for improvement that you hadn’t previously considered.
  • Take notes on the things you want to remember and set (and write down!) an action plan with your tutor before you leave. Most tutors will close a session with a review of the main points you discussed and help you craft an action plan automatically, but if this doesn’t happen, don’t be afraid to ask for one.

After meeting with your tutor:

  • Make a schedule for your assignment work. You can use an assignment calculator to help.
  • If you are meeting with a tutor for subject help, rather than help on a specific assignment, take some time to set future goals for tutorial sessions and approach your studies with those goals in mind.
  • Act on your tutor’s advice and don’t be afraid to play around with it if it doesn’t quite work for you. We are all different, so you may try a few strategies before finding one that is the best fit for you. However, your tutor’s advice is worth giving an honest try first, before you start to consider other strategies.
  • Use the other resources that are available to you. Your tutor may refer you to other sources of help or provide information that will be useful between sessions. Use these extra tools as extended support between sessions.
  • Remember that the goal of tutoring is to support you until you feel fully confident to work effectively without a tutor; this means hard work practicing and applying what you learn in your sessions and being mindful of the fact that your tutoring sessions should – and will – come to an end. If you wish, your tutor can help you prepare for this transition.

Self-Assessment

Introduction

Being critical as you assess your own work is an important part of improving your scientific writing. It can be hard to critically assess your own work, but if you learn how to do this effectively, you will greatly improve the quality of your final product. As you begin to assess the first draft of your writing, there are a few things you should watch for. Make sure you read your work critically, and try to look at it from an outsider’s perspective rather than your own. Allow enough time to go through you paper carefully, and make sure that everything you have written says exactly what you mean it to. To keep the content flowing and easy to read, use smooth transition words and phrases, but don’t forget to be concise.

The process of self-assessment has two essential parts: revision and editing. Revision requires you to look at the whole paper and make more fundamental changes to the overall purpose and development of your paper (does your draft answer the question?). In contrast, editing requires you to consider each word, sentence and phrase in your work, and to look for grammatical or mechanical errors. At this stage you should be fine-tuning your paper.

Self-Assessment Part One: Revision

Take a break between writing the first draft of your paper before you start to revise it, and make sure this break is at least 24 hours. It will help to tackle the revision process with a clear mind and a fresh perspective.


To assess the strengths (and weaknesses) of your paper as a whole, try to follow the steps below:

  1. Focus only on the meaning and structure (don’t worry about editing at this stage).
  2. If you did not create a writing outline before writing this first draft, create one now from the draft that you have written to help you see the areas that are lacking in content or logical development.
  3. Make sure you read aloud from a hard copy (not from a computer screen), so that you can hear what you have written down. If possible, have someone else read your work back to you because this will help you interpret how others will understand your work.
  4. Always save successive drafts for future comparison.
  5. Get feedback from others when revising (relating to the content and logical development). Have a look at the ‘How to Give and Receive Effective Feedback’ part of our site for more tips here.


You might find it helpful to use the following checklist (Table 1) as you revise your work. Doing so should help you decide whether your writing is saying what you mean it to say and taking the reader in the direction you desire.


Table 1: Checklist for the Revision Process

Checklist Questions Questions to Ask Yourself ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
Purpose - What is the purpose?
  • Is my writing consistent?
  • Does it follow the purpose of the assignment?
Thesis – What is my thesis?
  • Does my paper follow the thesis and commit to it?
Audience – Who is in my audience?
  • Does this paper address the appropriate audience?
  • Do I have the proper background information?
Structure – What are the main points?
  • Do I use my main points to support my thesis?
Development – Which examples do I use?
  • Do my examples support my main points?
Tone – What is the tone of my paper?
  • Is my tone appropriate for my audience?
  • Which words or phrases create the tone?
Unity – How do all the sentences fit together?
  • Does each sentence contribute to the thesis and purpose of my paper?
  • Should anything be taken out or rewritten?
Coherence – Does each point link with others?
  • Does my paper flow?
  • Does it include transitions or phrases to keep it smooth and easy to read?
  • Can I improve the flow by changing or eliminating certain words or sentences?
Title, Introduction, Conclusion – How interesting are these?
  • Is my title interesting and accurate?
  • Do I engage my audience and provoke interest with my introduction?
  • Do I take a cohesive position with my conclusion?

Self-Assessment Part Two: Editing

Take another break between writing the revised draft of your paper before you start to edit it, and make sure this break is at least 24 hours. It will help to tackle the editing process with a clear mind and a fresh perspective.


To assess the strengths (and weaknesses) of the grammar and mechanics of your writing, try to follow the steps below:

  1. Focus only on word choice, punctuation, and grammar (don’t change content at this stage)
  2. Make sure you read aloud from a hard copy (not from a computer screen) when you edit your work so that you can hear what you have written down. If possible, have someone else read your work back to you because this will help you interpret how others will understand your work
  3. Keep a simple record of the mechanical mistakes you tend to make
  4. Use the “find” tool in your software to search for overly used words and phrases. Then you can put in a word or phrase you have used and it will tell you how many times it appears in the document. When locating these words or phrases, decide which can go, which can be edited, and which must stay.
  5. First, edit for clarity, and then edit for grammatical correctness


You might find it helpful to use the following checklist (Table 2) as you edit your work. Doing so should help you decide whether your writing is saying what you mean it to say. For specific tips on getting your grammar correct, visit our dedicated pages here: we have information on the Active Vs. Passive Voice, Clarity and Simple Language, Mechanics and Punctuation, and Numbers and Units.


Table 2: Checklist for the Editing Process

Checklist Questions Questions to Ask Yourself ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
Clarity – How easy is it to interpret my writing?
  • Do my words and sentences convey what I intend them to?
  • Is anything confusing?
Effectiveness – How engaging is my language?
  • Do I engage my audience?
  • Do I express my ideas clearly for the given audience and purpose of the assignment?
  • Do I emphasize my main points and use appropriate words and sentences as support?
Correctness – How accurate is my grammar?
  • Is all my grammar correct?
  • Do any errors reduce the clarity or effectiveness of the paper?
  • Did I check my spelling, verb agreement, and punctuation?

Additional Tips for Editing

If you are having trouble editing your work or are not sure where to start, follow the list below. There are some handy tactics to make the editing process seem less daunting and more bearable.

A) Try reading your paper in reverse (sentence by sentence), to make sure each sentence makes sense on its own.
B) Cut, don’t add! Every point, statement, question, or word should have a reason to be there.
C) Eliminate redundancies within sentences, and within your paper
D) Avoid the passive voice; it makes your sentences more long-winded than they should be.
E) Use the spell-check and grammar-check tools in your software, but not at the expense of doing this manually. These tools will spot things you miss, but you might spot things they miss too. Also, they are not always correct.


Finally, after you have edited your work, make sure you proofread and format the final copy. It is during this time that you should slowly re-read and compare your first draft to the final copy. Now, you can check the list of references used in your paper to make sure the information from them and your formatting is correct.

How to Approach Instructors

How to Approach Professors, Instructors, and TAs


Many students feel nervous about approaching their professors, instructors and/or TAs for help, clarification, or feedback on their assignments. Remember that your professors have an interest in your success in the class and that they are there to help you. Asking for help when you need it is a sign of strength – you've identified that you need some assistance and are taking steps to get it.

Not sure why you would need to speak with your professor, instructor or TA outside of class time? Here are some reasons that explain why and how you should make use of their office hours:

To succeed in your course
  • Your professors, instructors and TAs will be reading your work to evaluate your success in the course. They are therefore your best resource for finding out more about assignment expectations.
  • If you want clarification on a topic, they will be able to explain it from another angle so that you can understand it better.
  • Why wait until your paper or assignment has been marked to get feedback? Bring examples to ground your writing in. Getting feedback in person can greatly improve your final product. Be sure to ask them if this is ok. While most will welcome the opportunity to provide you with feedback, some may not be able to read your entire draft.

Looking for another place to get feedback on your written work? If you are a UBC student, make sure you check out the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication. If you are a student at another institution you may have access to a similar service there. Additionally, and wherever you study, we advise you to check out our resource on Making the Most of Tutorial Sessions.

You may need academic references in the future
  • Applications for many things, including further schooling, university-related jobs, or funding applications require references. It’s difficult to ask for a reference from someone you have never met nor spoken to! If you develop a professional relationship with your professor/instructor they will be better equipped to tell employers about your strengths.
  • Professors, instructors and/or TAs might also be able to point you towards opportunities in a field you’re interested in.
Tips to ensure you have a positive interaction with your professor, instructor or TA
Talk to them early
  • Don’t wait until the day before the exam or assignment deadline to ask for help. The earlier you speak to your professor, the more they can help you, and the more they will want to – asking for guidance about an assignment that makes up a significant part of your class grade the night before it is due does not suggest you have given much thought to it (when in fact you might have done); in contrast, asking for guidance three weeks beforehand implies you are keen to devote time to the task and do a good job.
Be prepared and specific
  • What do you need help with? Arrive with a list of questions or areas with which you need some help. Bring your class notes and the course syllabus with you as well.
  • Bring a specific question. This will get you better results than a more general “I need help.” Make sure that the answer to the question isn’t something that would be easily answered by reading the syllabus or course materials.
  • If you have questions about feedback, bring the assignment you have questions about and calmly discuss your reasoning for your answers or the way you approached the assignment. Receiving detailed feedback and an explanation for the way your work has been graded will help you improve your work for the next assignment.
Take responsibility
  • Don’t make excuses for not doing as well as you want to. Focus on what you can do to improve and what kind of support or information you need to do so.
Act professionally
  • Be on time when you have an appointment (not too early, and definitely not late). If you are attending office hours, arrive when there is enough time in the appointment block to deal with your question(s).
  • Respect the form of contact your professor has asked for and follow the contact instructions on the course syllabus.
  • Be polite but assertive. There is absolutely nothing to gain by threatening your professor, instructor or TA, or by being unreasonably combative. However, make sure you get what you need from the interaction – if you have come for additional guidelines or explanation of feedback on a prior assignment but do not feel that you have received these things, ask again (tell your professor, instructor or TA that you are still confused).
Do not be offended or upset and seek advice elsewhere as well
  • Use any comments to help gain insight into a topic or a strategy for learning, but don’t hesitate to use the other support services available on campus as well. They are there to help you!
  • Your university career is about academic and intellectual growth, self-exploration, and inquiry. The skills you learn now (including learning to ask for help) will only help you in the future.
- And, lastly…
Listen to feedback and apply it in future work
  • Bear in mind that it is very frustrating as a professor, instructor or TA to take the time to provide useful feedback and guidance if the student who receives it then chooses to ignore it! Try your best to incorporate what they have told you into your future work.
  • Also bear in mind that while general tips should hold true across a range of classes, it is possible that different assignments in other classes will require you to approach things from a different perspective. As a result, you should seek guidance on future assignments from the different professors, instructors and TAs that will be grading them. Sometimes, a thorough reading of the assignment documentation is enough. In other situations, you may need to ask clarifying questions.


More reading materials on this topic:

http://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/getting-the-most-out-of-your-professor/
http://www.firstgenerationstudent.com/blog/how-to-approach-a-professor-for-help-tips-from-a-professor/

How to Give and Receive Effective Feedback

Introduction

Careful peer review of a classmate’s work is beneficial to both you and your classmate. Your classmate benefits by getting specific feedback that will help make their piece of writing more effective. Feedback in the form of constructive criticism is very useful when revising a paper. You can benefit too from peer review by seeing what another student does well and needs to improve on, which can highlight strengths and weakness in your own writing. Plus, the act of offering analysis and targeted feedback can make you better at reviewing and revising in general. Additionally, it gives you experience in critical reading.

Giving Feedback

Preparing to Give Feedback

When your classmate gives you a paper to review, ask them for the main idea they are trying to communicate and note this, in a few words, somewhere on the paper. Return to this as you read the paper to check your classmate’s focus and clarity.

Read the paper carefully, taking time to note your first reaction to different sections. This will help you examine your own approach to reading and will help the writer see how their work is received at the outset.

Remember, you are offering feedback as a reader, not a writer – don’t worry about how experienced you are as a writer or how qualified you feel to offer feedback on someone else’s work. At this stage in the writing process, a reader’s input will be the most valuable.

If you are still unsure of what to look for when editing a paper, take a look at our Peer-Review Checklist (Table 1). This will help you identify some specific things to watch for while you are editing.


The Process of Giving Feedback

1. Know what the writer intends to say in their document and focus on whether they actually say it.

2. Focus on higher-order concerns – the most important and significant things to fix – don't give TOO much feedback; instead, just focus on the main points/learning targets: clarity, effectiveness, and correctness.

Table 1: Peer-Review Checklist for Assessing Higher-Order Concerns

Checklist Questions to Ask as You Review ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
i. Clarity
  • Do the words and sentences convey what they intend to?
  • Is anything confusing?
ii. Effectiveness
  • Does the writing engage the given audience?
  • Does it have an appropriate tone for the given audience?
  • Does the writing express the ideas clearly for the given audience and purpose of the assignment?
  • Does the writing emphasize the main points and use appropriate words and sentences as support?
iii. Correctness
  • Is all the grammar correct?
  • Do any errors reduce the clarity or effectiveness of the paper?
  • Was the paper checked for spelling, verb agreement, tenses/form, and basic punctuation?

3. Be supportive and honest – say what you like about the writing and try to explain everything in a positive way. Make sure you focus on the effectiveness of the paper as it appears to you as you read it.

  • E.g. Instead of saying: “This is not interesting,” or, “This thesis statement is poorly worded,” say something like: “This paragraph is a bit confusing to me because…” or, “I like the way you included this, but I’m not sure if this part of the sentence is necessary.”

4. Give positive feedback, but also highlight main areas of weakness. Make sure to keep your tone approachable and positive in your comments, even when you are critiquing.

  • Why do this? Offering work for peer review can be intimidating and stressful for both parties involved. Focusing on keeping the tone positive makes it easier to offer feedback and makes it easier for the recipient to engage. Think about times you have received commentary on work: it is easier to learn and avoid becoming defensive if the commentary is constructive and also acknowledges strengths, as opposed to when it is simply a list of your shortcomings.

5. Make comments in writing and use additional paper if you need to.

6. Make comments in the file if you are reading it as a digital copy as well. However, make sure you word your comments carefully to avoid any misunderstanding.

7. Be specific in your feedback - say why something is confusing or why you might disagree.

8. Always give examples, whether you are the reader or the writer, asking the reader to focus on specific elements of the project.

  • Why do this? Providing examples adds clarity in communication and demonstrates the observations you make. If you are the reader, using the writer’s own work to illustrate your observations can help the writer to understand how you are relating to the work in a specific and memorable way; if you are the writer, using your own work to illustrate your requests to your reader will help them see your work from your perspective.

Receiving Feedback

Preparing to Receive Feedback

1. Before you give a paper to your classmate, choose a few things that you would like to receive specific feedback on. Either make a note of these on your draft or let your classmate know when you exchange drafts. This is a good idea if you have been given a list of required points to comment on or questions to answer within the assignment instructions.

  • Why do this? Two reasons: first, it forces you to read your own work very carefully, so as to notice what is going well and what you feel isn’t quite right. Second, it ensures that the reader will check the logic, flow, and transitions of your paper.

2. Take the time to proofread your draft before sharing it with your reader.

  • Why do this? Often, readers see proofreading as the first, best, and easiest way to help a writer. Doing a quick proofread to correct obvious errors before sharing your project with your reader takes away the distraction of errors in grammar, punctuation, format, and mechanics and allows your reader to focus on what really matters (the content and logical development of your work).


The Process of Receiving Feedback

1. Have a positive attitude and try not to become defensive.

Revise your work to address appropriate feedback – carefully decide which feedback to use – you have the final say and can decline advice if you disagree. However, unless there is a good reason, it might be risky to ignore advice from someone who will be grading your work. It can be frustrating if you spend a lot of time as a reader providing detailed, constructive comments that would improve a piece of writing, only to have the writer ignore these in subsequent drafts.

2. Keep a record of the types of comments you receive to guide the way you write future assignments.

Reflecting after Feedback

Make sure you understand the written and verbal feedback that you have been given.

If you need more information or clarification about the assignment or feedback you have received, don't be afraid to ask for it!

  • Why do this? Your professor/instructor has office hours for a reason and is happy to help. Don’t be intimidated! Check out the ‘How to Approach Instructors’ part of our site if you need some help!