Developing engaged citizens through critical thinking


Terry HebertWhat happens when students are asked to write for an audience who knows little about the discipline?” Guest speaker Professor Terry Hébert addressed this question at a November 20, 2015 session entitled Developing Engaged Citizens through Critical Thinking, the most recent event organized by the Assessment in Large Classes Advisory Group.

An Assignment in Lay Translation

In Pharmacology 508, an undergraduate course with enrolment ranging from 35-100 students, Terry assigns students the task of writing about science using ordinary, everyday language so that a lay audience can understand. Students read three scientific articles and have to “translate” each article into a one-page essay in the form of a New York Times-type piece that explains the scientific content in an easily comprehensible manner. For the first two essays, students submit individual writing. In some cases, the third one requires that groups of four students submit one collaborative piece of writing. The three essays are worth 30% of the final grade, with a breakdown of 5%, 10%, and 15% per essay, respectively. A novel feature of the assignment is that Terry recruits actual lay readers to provide students with feedback on the effectiveness of their communication.

Students are not necessarily accustomed to producing writing about science for a lay audience in the context of a university course. It can be challenging. For this reason, in class, Terry shares samples of writing that meet and that don’t meet the assignment criteria. He also offers a few tips before students tackle the assignment:

  • target an audience with a grade 10 level of reading comprehension
  • jot down ideas in point form
  • do not write like you talk
  • do not use jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations
  • do not make pointless small talk

Rationale for the Assignment

terry-cartoonTerry is trying to prepare students for a variety of communication situations they will encounter, which, even in an academic context such as writing grant applications, may call for lay writing. Indeed, many of the people to whom students will communicate their ideas are often without science backgrounds or have little knowledge of the subject. In addition, Terry believes that translating scientific writing into lay writing about science compels students to develop a deeper understanding of the course content for themselves.

Terry highlighted three points that speak to the value of the assignment: firstly, it tests students’ understandings of materials with which they may not be terribly familiar; secondly, by paraphrasing the articles using ordinary language, students are able to frame key messages; and thirdly, it teaches students to make arguments and engage with a broader audience, an audience beyond those who are familiar with the discipline.

Assignment Feedback

Student feedback on the assignment has generally been positive. Terry shared some course evaluation comments:

“Super fun assignment, makes students realize that what we think is common knowledge might not be so common.”

“Good exercise…applicable to everyday life! The average Joe doesn’t care about which subunit of which GPCR is targeted, they want to know the implication of a discovery. Definitely useful skill moving forward.”

“Communicating basic biological concepts to an audience with no scientific background is tricky. The nature of the assignment forces you to remain aware of your use of certain types of phrasing and vocabulary. It helps you practice honing your writing skills geared towards a specific audience.”

Post-presentation Discussion

A lively discussion with Terry and the audience followed the presentation. One audience member raised the concern of “dumbing down” academic ideas when writing for a lay audience. She pointed out that some people believe the way a person writes represents his or her level of intellect. In response, Terry emphasized that being able to communicate across disciplines is a crucial skill when it comes to grant writing. He highlighted that only when researchers can simplify the language to allow lay people (or even colleagues in different disciplines) to understand the knowledge can the ideas truly appeal to the public.

Picking up on Terry’s suggestion that students write for a Grade 10 level audience, one person mentioned the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index, which generates an estimate of the level of reading difficulty of a written text in English. Microsoft Word will calculate the score. (For instructions, search for Flesch-Kincaid in Word Help.) Students could actually be asked to include the score when they submit their assignments.

The discussion shifted somewhat to the more general topic of creating “a culture of writing” at McGill. Given that the primary way to convey ideas is through writing, McGill should help students realize the importance of having good writing skills. However, learning to write takes time, and there needs to be a commitment on the part of the university to allow students the time they need to develop the skill.

It was generally agreed that developing better written communication skills first requires the development of critical thinking skills. It is inarguable that without solid critical thinking, it is difficult to achieve compelling and effective writing, an idea which is captured in Terry’s “lay translation” assignment.

A Student’s Perspective

As an undergraduate student in McGill’s Faculty of Arts, I agree that universities need to establish a culture of writing, not only in Arts, but all across different disciplines. We need to realize that without the ability to write, we will lose not only ideas, but also great minds. In the Faculty of Arts, it is common for students to enter first year not really knowing how to write, and they have to soon produce academic papers. Many students strive to write these papers in a highly academic and sophisticated manner so as to reflect their intellectual level. Few students, however, are familiar with the specific skill of writing for a lay audience—which can also display the writer’s intellect. It’s not surprising, though, that students are unfamiliar with this genre since few opportunities exist in our curriculum to practice this skill.

I am interested in seeing the university help students build a more solid, overall foundation for writing, accompanied by instruction on how to think critically, and to reflect on and express our ideas through effective writing. Ultimately, a better understanding of the usage and implications of different styles of writing serves student writers well, which in turn serves their reading audiences well.

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