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Technical Writing: Metacognition for STEM Abstracts: "Explain Your Work"

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Metacognition for STEM Abstracts: "Explain Your Work"

Fragile Learning

Recently a team at Finland's Aalto University monitored the metacognitive
status of adult students taking a basic programming course (Teemu Lehtinen
and others, "Students struggle to explain their own program code," ACM
ITICSE 2021 virtual conference, doi: 101145/3430665.3456322 ).  The
students successfully learned how to construct simple programs (for
example, run a count-down loop, launch some "rockets," print 'liftoff'
for each).  But the teachers found that "a little less than one third"
of the students could not correctly answer simple questions about
their program features or else offered "rather irrelevant discussions"
of features absent from or incompatible with the code that they had
actually produced (p. 208, col. 2).  The teachers took this inability
to "explain your work" as a sign of "fragile learning"--a problem for
life and not just for school because "both program comprehension AND
the ability to describe the program are necessary skills in a
programming career" that intersects with colleagues as well as clients
(p.211, col. 2).

The Case of Abstracts

A similar metacognitive challenge faces student writers--especially for
familiar but highly constrained writing tasks such as constructing
(research or science-project) abstracts.  Many students--and even some
working scientists--fill up an abstract with words but cannot articulate
specific (reader) goals that those words must address, nor the design
constraints on them.  Yet every sentence in an effective abstract--
and often every single word--must be justified by its contribution to
the abstract's value for readers.  So success--especially repeatable
success--calls for strong metacognitive awareness by the writer of
what is happening with each abstract feature.


An abstract is not an introduction to a paper or project, but rather
a surrogate for it.  STEM article abstracts circulate isolated from
their articles in abstract databases, and science-fair abstracts are
carefully studied by judges BEFORE those judges see actual projects
or interview students.  So writers need the metacognitive awareness
to approach an abstract not as a roadmap for text that lies ahead but
rather as a proxy used for decision-making by strangers.


Abstracts usually have strict word or character-count limits, enforced
because there are so many readily available competitor papers or
projects.  Iterative adjustment to fit is commonly needed, facilitated
by relentless size awareness.


STEM abstracts differ from those in history or literature because they
are not just enticing little paragraphs--instead, useful science abstracts
always have the same fourfold IMRD structure (introduction/problem,
methods, results, discussion/significance) as the paper or project that
they represent.  STEM readers expect to easily find these four elements,
so writers must pursue them as an overt, planned text-design goal,
balancing available scarce space to accommodate all four facets.


Clearly a focused, metacognitive sense of balance is vital for a
student writer to meet these constraints and still achieve the goals
listed above.  For example, if the methods are ordinary but the
results are striking, borrowing space from the methods summary to
enrich the discussion of significance would be smart.  But if the
methods are really innovative and the results unremarkable, then
it would be smarter to reverse that space allocation.

So "fragile learning"--betrayed when student writers cannot "explain
their work" by revealing the actual metacognitive text-design strategies
that they invoked to construct an effective STEM abstract, for example--
not only hurts the writer (who misses a communication opportunity) but
their readers too, who rely on STEM text (especially abstracts) to
make decisions about how to invest their own time and talent.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
For support designing and helping others to design effective STEM
abstracts, see ]



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