Using Constructive Alignment for Academic Writing II – Getting started
This is Part II of a 4-part blog series. Read Part I here.
Using Constructive Alignment for Academic Writing II – Getting started by Srikanth Sugavanam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
In Part I, I drew a parallel between academic writing and the constructive alignment framework used for course design. Essentially, I showed how we may view our academic peers as learners, trying to construct meaning, or in the broader sense, knowledge from our presented results.
Now, let’s see where to start.
Let’s think of our paper as an ecosystem, where the different article sections need to be well-aligned with each other.
You have your data analysis, and a bunch of results. If you look at your academic peers as learners the first question you can ask yourself is –
What would you like your peers to learn from your paper? That is, what do you want the learning outcomes of your paper to be?
Typically, the abstract is used for giving the readers a perspective of the motivation behind the work, the essential results presented, and the perceived impact and outlook of said results. Essentially then, the format of the abstract naturally lends itself to defining the ‘learning objectives/outcomes’ of our paper.
So, we can define the learning outcomes of our paper in the abstract. Then, the sections that follow, along with the evidence (figures, tables, data) that we present must be aligned towards helping achieve those learning outcomes.
In defining the learning objectives using the abstract, let’s adopt a mindset based on the following tenets.
Tenet 1 – Clarity
Here’s an excerpt from a speech, by a person we may or may not know.
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, … at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always…”
…and it goes on for a few more.
And so, one is forced to ask –
What’s your point?
The abstract has to be clear, and concise. Keeping the learning objectives focused, and to a minimum will also ensure that your writing is concise and packs a punch.
There are examples of brutal conciseness out in the wild. Case in point –
Not that this should be the norm, but the brave aren’t afraid to break rules.
Tenet 2 – Viewing the abstract as an elevator pitch
A busy researcher has several papers to read on any given day, and they are short of time. So, how can you get them hooked from the get-go? The abstract then becomes your elevator pitch. You have short amount of time where you have to convey the essence of your work, and what the researcher stands to gain by spending their valuable time on it.
I have found the Nature abstract template a very good starting point. It shows how the abstract can be used to convey the impact of your results very quickly to a large readership. Highly recommended.
Also check out Prof. Armani’s SPIE article on 10 simple steps to writing a scientific paper. She too reckons the abstract as an elevator pitch, and in addition reminds us that these are included in search engine results – so be sure to include important keywords.
- Use the abstract to define the learning outcomes of the paper, and
- define them clearly and concisely.
Moving on to Part III, I show how we can use some writing tools to align our writing with the abstract.