Monday, 14 March 2016

Oh, absTRACT!

I went to a fabulous workshop/talk by Julie Moore at BALEAP last year in which she talked about the potential uses of abstracts in the EAP classroom. Since then, I've tried to use them more but haven't really developed a coherent pattern of use. What I've done so far is not very exciting and has primarily been 'writing' focused. The students have to write a dissertation as part of the course so we do some lessons on writing abstracts. This involves looking at sample abstracts, looking at the features common to abstracts and then trying to produce their own.

Taken from Wiki Art
Composition A XXI by László Moholy-Nagy
taken from WikiArt
But when I think about the amount of abstracts there are out there, I feel like I'm leaving money on the table - that as reading texts in and of themselves, they have tons to offer: they're free to those of us on the other side of pay walls; they're authentic; you can pick and choose depending on students' disciplines (or they can pick and choose).

As they are short in nature, I think they lend themselves to short, but hopefully rewarding reading activities.

1. Give students a hypothetical topic and three somewhat relevant abstracts. They can only choose one and so must justify their decision.

2. Give students a social sciences type abstract (ELT type ones are good for this) - remove the methodology and ask students to figure out how they would fulfil the research aim.

3. Choose a topic for a future lecture (we did antibiotic resistance recently). Ask students to find 2 or 3 abstracts related to the topic for the next class. They can discuss their choices with others under headings like background/context, research aim, methodology, conclusion. After discussing their abstracts they could then predict what they expect to be covered in the lecture. The follow up then is the lecture itself.

I realise now after writing that these suggestions are very teacher centred. With abstracts, the students have great scope to select and explore areas that they are interested in. The teacher can provide some structure to that but whenever I think about getting more student selected reading material into the classroom, I default to that wonderful suggestion from a while back about everyone (teacher included) bringing in something to read for 15 minutes in the class (wish I could remember who suggested it!). After that, everyone simply talks about what they have been reading and why they chose it. An abstract or two would seem to fit nicely into that loose structure.

The other thing about abstracts is the frustration they can lead to - how they can tantalise and then disappoint. If your students are working without full journal access then, if nothing else, abstracts can be a way to initiate a discussion open access and knowledge.

Would be nice to hear how others use abstracts in class.

Postscript: Mura also wrote on abstracts with the added benefit of linking to genre (bio/medicine) specific examples here