Friday, 7 May 2021

Clear methods writing: actual to plan

I had an interesting problem with a student recently, where they were writing the wrong elements in the wrong tense in their methods chapter. I found it hard to pinpoint why it was wrong, but - once I realised WHICH conventions were being flouted - really made things clearer for me... which will translate into my being able to provide clearer instruction. 

Initially, I thought this was a matter of the student not having specifically cited particular elements drawn from the source at the point they were mentioned in the sentence. However, I soon realised that they were combining the expert theory/view with what they had done. So instead of the academic writing sandwich: "John Doe says to do this" followed by "so I did this [applied project detail]", the student was mashing the two together. For example, the student wrote:

“Semi-structured interviews gave the researcher an advantage to plan ahead of time and allowed the researcher to appear competent and prepared (Newton, 2010)"

When I read the paragraph, I was confused. Did the student do this (i.e. was this applied in their primary research - actual), or did the cited author write this (i.e. being cited as an expert or theoretical view - plan)? I was left confused as to whether this was actual or plan. Done, or advice. Reality or theory. 

I advised the student that when we cite, then we cite in the present tense, because the advice remains current. However, we apply the theory to our own research findings and write in the past tense, because we're writing up our results after we have done our research. 

I also suggested that, if the initial paragraph was written from the point of view of the expert advice, one option would be to change the paragraph to:

As a research tool, SSI gives the researcher an advantage to plan ahead of time, allowing the researcher to appear competent and prepared (Newton, 2010).

This makes the ownership of the theory very clear. But now we need to rework the student's sentence to fit with what had been intended, so we could write:

For this project, the researcher found that using semi-structured interviews allowed the mapping of a range of participant responses, and the advance preparation of answers to likely questions, and prompts to keep the exploration on track.

If we put these two sentences together, we end up with a paragraph explaining one of the elements about why semi-structured interviews were chosen. But we are missing a definition of what semi-structured interviews are, to lead off, and to complete that triplet. As a rough example: 

Semi-structured interviews (SSI) have been defined as “ascertain[ing] subjective responses from persons regarding a particular situation or phenomenon they have experienced” (McIntosh & Morse, 2015, p. 1). As a research tool, SSI gives the researcher an advantage to plan ahead of time, allowing the researcher to appear competent and prepared (Newton, 2010). For this project, the researcher found that SSIs allowed the mapping of a range of participant responses, the advance preparation of answers to likely questions, and prompt development which all helped to keep the interview exploration on track.

Then we would write the next triplet (or even pair if the McIntosh and Morse definition related to both concepts well enough); perhaps those of social cues; then perhaps freedom of expression, and so forth. 

It is amazing how much we can learn, just from looking at the writing of others. 


Sam

References: 

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