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07 March 2013

Teaching How Write the Research Report

Teaching how to write a traditional scientific research report is tough. Students have been taught a specific type of narrative for their entire lives, and we have to convince them that there is another way to do it. I struggled with this myself through a good part of graduate school. There is a tendency to think in terms of the standard Western story arc. We read novels and short stories, virtually all of which follow some variation of this trajectory. It looks like this:

(Please forgive my amateurish charts. You'd be surprised how long they took me to make.) The research report, though, essentially stands the standard arc on its head. It looks like this:

The traditional story arc should be inverted for the research report, but there is a tendency to withhold the kicker until late in the research report to build suspense when the kicker should be spoiled very early in the introduction and then revisited in the conclusion. The point of the research report is much different than the point of works of Western fiction. The latter attempts to engage the reader emotionally, to envelope her or him in the unfolding of the action. The former, however, avoids emotion (for better or worse) and imparts specific evidence to make a generalizable claim. I've found that showing these curves to students, particularly in Research Methods and Senior Seminar courses, helps them to understand this distinction and then to put it into practice.

I make no comment here on whether the inverted arc model for the traditional research report is effective or desirable. Feel free to weigh in on that below.

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