Towards a Pro-active Technical Writing Curriculum


Many students stumble into writing with an inadequate sense of the importance of their audience – a problem that no grading checklist can solve.  Our technical writing students know they have a real-life audience – their grader.  Assignments which aim to elicit critical, original thought typically provide a cast of additional characters – the plant manager, the inquisitive politician, even inanimate “characters” such as a tract of virgin forest, or a toxic waste dump – all of whom have varying stakes in the outcome.  Our students, then, play a very complex role which we do not sufficiently consider: they are engineering students who write academic exercises, playing the role of engineers who write engineering papers.  An engineer is expected to produce a particular kind of writing, and a student is expected to produce something rather different.

The purpose of a professional engineering report (“to divulge the object of what was done, how it was done, and the results”) differs from the purpose of an academic exercise (“to prove that the student did what he was told, has made a record of what he did and has learned what he was supposed to learn”) [3:7], according to P. B. Hughes, a University of Toronto mechanical engineer.  Writing in 1963, Hughes noted that students generally perform experiments, “where that which is tested is. . . a hypothesis rather than ‘hardware’, where there is an element of discovery or of confirmation of previous discovery (or at least this element is simulated).”  Engineers, on the other hand, perform tests or trials, in which the object is “to determine properties or performance characteristics of samples of materials or items of equipment, where the methods of determination are not essentially novel and are not themselves the main subject of the report.” [3:16]  The friction between the demands of the writer-student and the demands of the writer-engineer is often underestimated.

When the aim of an evaluation is to determine whether a student has mastered a skill, or to rank him or her on a fixed comparative scale, we call it summative evaluation.  When the object of an evaluation is not to categorize the end result, but rather to extend the educational process, we call it formative evaluation. [4]  Both kinds of evaluation are important in education. When my only contact with students comes after the writing is over, my comments are always summative.  In theory, my comments may affect the student’s next writing assignment; however, when students continue to misspell “engineering,” a grader must wonder just how much students remember [from assignment to assignment].  The following case studies suggest that more formative feedback radically alters student response to instruction.

Case study one

The description of a recent assignment in “Electrical Fundamentals” advises: “...your report will be marked on its effectiveness at communicating to the reader what you have accomplished in the first four labs.” [5] From the very first sentence, the author of the student sample to the right (Fig 6), drawn to what appeared to be a familiar, manage­able request for data, demonstrates a serious misreading of the purpose of the instructions:

“The objective of the report is to design and analyze circuits with conventional equipment in a laboratory setting.  Prepreparation in regard to prereading the assignments and making theoretical calculations was completed and used within the labs. The precalculations were very close in range to the measured experimental data.”

Fig. 6: An abstract written by a student who confused the purpose of the report with that of the laboratory exercise.

The author of this passage has:

Although this passage employs adequate grammar, it does not address the question posed by the assignment, and was therefore severely penalized.  The student only learned of this important error after it was too late.

Case study two

The writing centre was recently invited to work with students in a fourth-year design course, who were writing design proposals for year-long group projects.  The writing centre coordinator lectured to them about the proper format for a proposal, and arranged a writing workshop a week before the final drafts were due.   About thirty students in a single CD-ROM multimedia project (under the direction of an undergraduate project leader, supervised by an engineering professor) had collaborated to produce some twelve papers, each covering the responsibilities of a particular subcommittee.  While students with less-ambitious projects managed to produce acceptable drafts, the efforts from the CD-ROM group were mostly disasters.  There appeared to be little communication between the groups, and the harried project manager was stressing out. 

Having been taught the format for a “proposal,” they dutifully followed it -- even though they had already been working together for five months, and many committees had nothing further to propose.  Fortunately we diagnosed the problem early; the prescription was a quick introduction to the “interim report.”  We further warned them that, from our detached viewpoint, we saw disaster looming: their various reports offered conflicting statements of purpose, irreconcilable timelines, and muddled descriptions of group responsibilities.  Some students, unwilling to change for what appeared to be reasons external to the requirements of the writing task, angrily defended the status quo, claiming nobody had time to read all the reports.

I told them (quite dramatically), “That’s precisely why we write abstracts!”  Only then did the students think about writing for each other as well as their professor.  Because we had identified flaws in their first writing attempts, we were able to motivate them to link their roles as writer-student and writer-engineer. We easily resolved the surface-level writing problem; a side effect was a much-relieved project manager, who dropped by the writing centre later and shook my hand.

Case study three

Although the lessons I have learned on the LAC staff have so far dominated this paper, I have also taught my own technical writing courses, which conclude with a major report assignment.  Since the first-year core courses focus on math and science, these students generally know little about what it really means to be an engineer, and fall back on familiar forms when facing the final project.  The results tend to resemble grade 9 book reports.  Of what use in a technical writing class is a summary of the history of steel from ancient times to the twentieth century?   How does this prepare students for the working world or, more immediately, their upper-level classes?

My challenge was to motivate students to begin writing earlier and to make them see the value of this extra effort.  Requiring students to submit a topic or an outline early is only partially successful.  If a student throws an outline together at the last minute, and I let it pass more or less intact, the student has no motivation to do any further research.  If the last-minute effort fails, the student may simply accept the low grade, not bothering to return to the project until just before the next segment is due.  All but the most diligent students treat such assignments as busywork. 

My solution was to use real-world external stimuli to enrich the environment in which the student was expected to produce a formal report.  The director of the Engineering Computing Facility (which administers e-mail and other accounts to the student body) agreed to lend his name to the project, as an outside reader with a professional interest in the students’ documents.  Students were to submit formal reports evaluating the services offered by two different university computing facilities.  The students requested two on-site interviews, wrote trip reports, and compared the physical layout of the two facilities.  Finally, they drew on their previous work to produce the formal report itself, which evaluated the services offered by the facilities.  I had the students work over the Internet, and encouraged them to send me questions and rough drafts.  Some students were frustrated early on by the limitations of e-mail communication – such as the time it took for their interview targets to arrange times.  Because I was on the “cc” list, I learned that one student arranged an appointment, failed to show up, and then begged to reschedule.  Another student’s requests were generally perfunctory, full of typographical errors, and always ended with a somewhat erotic ASCII-art appendage.  He later sent me a desperate message demanding to know why his interview targets were not taking him seriously.

Evaluation of case study three

Despite such occasional drawbacks, the students who participated in this multi-phase formal report project generally performed better than my students from earlier classes.  In an exit poll I conducted, several students mentioned the formal report as the most enjoyable part of the course; one in particular noted that he liked using use e-mail to contact people on a professional level.  All 18 respondents ranked “comments on rough drafts” as more valuable to them than “comments on final drafts.”  I take this as evidence that students appreciated and applied my regular input.

The sequential arrangement automatically rewarded preparation and penalized procrastination more effectively then I could have done on my own.  For instance, students who sent their memos late had less time to hold the interview and produce the trip report; students who did not prepare before their interviews returned with little useful information.  A further benefit to this arrangement was that as students spent time writing about the same subject from different perspectives, there was less ramping-up time at each stage.  Students were not struggling with a completely new topic while at the same time trying to produce a complex report.  As a result, they demonstrated better organizational skills, and their prose was much easier to read, especially in the end product.  Since I had already provided ample formative evaluation at earlier stages in the writing process, and since the final papers were fairly coherent and mostly well-written, the final grading process took considerably less time.

Instead of feeling like a coroner putting toe tags on corpses, this experience made me feel like a teacher interacting with living, breathing students.

Next: Recommendations

Dennis G. Jerz