Persuading Students to Think Visually with Infographics

Screenshot from Practical Strategies in Technical Communication showing a Thinking Visually featureI love the “Thinking Visually” resources in Mike Markel’s Practical Strategies for Technical Communication (2nd ed.). The example shown in the screenshot on the right outlines the six major characteristics of a technical document.

As you flip through the pages of the textbook, these full-page graphics stand out, catching students’ attention with their strong contrast and reader-friendly presentation of the information explored in more detail in the text.

The textbook’s “Preface for Instructors” explains the goal of this new feature:

Reflecting the increasingly visual nature of today’s learners and of technical communication itself, the Second Edition includes new “Thinking Visually” graphics, developed with feedback from instructors. This feature provides an accessible, modern take on key principles and concepts throughout the text.

The feature this quick summary presents definitely stands out, even in a highly visual textbook like this one.

[NOTE: The “Thinking Visually” infographics mentioned in this post are available in the short version of the text (mentioned above), Practical Strategies for Technical Communication.They are not included in the full version of the text, Technical Communication.]

I decided to create my own infographic resources to persuade students to think visually about the concepts in Technical Communication. I’m starting with documentation. Students struggle typically struggle with that topic, and its coverage in most textbooks is dense and text-heavy.

I began with this page (shown as an image) on the question, “Why Use Documentation?” It is also available as a Google Doc or a PDF to provide full accessibility to students.

Image of the Why Use Documentation? page

The three reasons that documentation is important listed in the resource come from the Appendix on “Documenting Your Sources.” The infographic is rather simple, but I hope clear and direct—just like those from Practical Strategies for Technical Communication. Tell me what you think. I plan to make several more before students begin their major research projects in a few weeks, so I can definitely use some feedback. Just leave me a comment below.

NOTE: Practical Strategies for Technical Communication has just been published (2019) in a third edition, but I only have access to the second edition presently. The “Thinking Visually” are included in the third edition as well.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Making Time for Software Instruction

Black student working at laptop outsideFor students to do well in the courses I teach, they have to understand how the course software works. Since the courses are 100% online, the spaces that our course software creates become the classroom where we interact. If students cannot get to those spaces or do not fully understand how they work, they can fail the course.

Given this potential, I make time for software instruction, no matter how packed the course is with subject area content and related work. Generally, I approach software instruction as needed to complete activities in the course. For instance, I talk about how to use banded rows to increase table readability as students work on an assignment that requires creating a table. The software instruction is directly tied to doing well on the activity, so students are motivated to learn the related technical skills.

The challenge is knowing when students will need help with the software that doesn’t relate to specific assignments. Students come to the course with a variety of experience, so I cannot assume that they all need the same instruction. I encourage students to help themselves by linking to the documentation from course materials. Beyond that, I’ve relied on two strategies:

  • Wait until someone asks.
  • Look for patterns that suggest students need help.

In both cases, I either provide a link to the documentation or provide a customized explanation with video or screenshots. These techniques work, but I’d like to do more.

This term, I decided to focus on software instruction from the first day of classes. I gave students a curated list of links to the student guide to the software. Focusing on the commands and tools that I knew students needed for the course reduced the number of documentation links 90%, from 241 to 24 links. No longer do students have to search through pages and pages of information to find what they need—and I benefit from linking to the official documentations, which I don’t have to maintain.

I asked students to read through the entire list. I don’t expect them to memorize the list or click on every link. I just want them to remember there was a resource that listed the main tools they need to use in the course. After skimming through the list, they chose at least one software task to learn more about. I asked students to read the details in the documentation and then try the tool.

For extra points, students could post a reply describing what they found in their exploration. To my happy surprise, the activity yielded 75 replies. Students explored a variety of tools, focusing on whatever interested them. Repeatedly, students explained that they had found some capability in the software that they never knew existed.

Will students remember everything they read? Undoubtedly not, but they do know where to find details on the key commands they need for the course. Since this was the first activity in the course, students and I can draw on it for the entire term. Overall, it seems like a successful strategy that I hope to continue using.

How do you make time for software instruction in your courses? What resources do you share with students? Tell me about the strategies you use by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo Credit: _MG_3783 by VIA Agency on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Inspiration in Letters of Note

This week, I have a short post on a great resource (and one related class activity) that I found on Twitter as I was reading through messages with the #womeninTC hashtag. The TC stands for Technical Communication. The hashtag is a great source of ideas, articles, and support for those of us who teach technical writing.

Here’s the Tweet from Dr. Amelia Cheley (@plaidsicle) that inspired this post, with a transcript following:

Image of Chesley's Tweet, transcript follows

Transcript, with capitalization consistent with the original:

dr. amelia chesley (@plaidsicle): for the first day of class this week, I had my tech com students analyze several random, real memos (including this one lettersofnote.com/2010/08/star-t…) and then each compose a random, imaginary memo themselves. I am loving what they’ve come up with so far! #womenintc [3:26 PM 16 Jan 2019]

The activity sounded like fun, so I immediately clicked through to see the STAR TREK/Casting memo. Not only did I find an entertaining memo, but I was sucked into the website’s assortment of letters, memos, and other notes from the famous, the infamous, and the unknown. It is a rich collection of primary material that could be used in many classes, not just in technical writing.

My imagination is spinning with the options. I’m sure I will have some specific writing activities to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’m going to end with a list of ten favorites from the site:

  1. SEVEN LITTLE MEN HELP A GIRL
  2. Subject: Toilet Paper
  3. SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO PLAYERS
  4. Gee whiz, that master alarm certainly startled me
  5. On bureaucratese and gobbledygook
  6. IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER
  7. Is there a space program which we could win?
  8. The Tiger Oil Memos
  9. To All Potty-Mouthed Inbetweeners
  10. I was ready to sink into the earth with shame

As you wander through the site, I am sure you will find something entertaining. Let me know what you find, and share any ideas you have for using the site. Just leave me a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Zombies in the Writing Classroom

Six warning signs, all stating 'Keep Out - Zombie Infected Area'I kicked off Spring semester with some discussion questions meant to work as icebreakers. Two of the prompts are fairly typical: one asks students to talk about an object significant to their careers, and the other asks students to brainstorm characteristics of technical writing based on their experience and observations.

As an alternative to those two fairly customary discussion topics, I devised this third, more playful prompt, “Your Career and the Zombie Apocalypse”:

Imagine that the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. The walking dead are bearing down upon your part of the country, and everyone in the world is working to stop them and preserve life in the world as it was before the zombie awakening. As a way to introduce yourself to the class, write a reply that tells us the following:

  1. your major and career goal (i.e., what do you want to be when you graduate?).
  2. what one thing people in your career can do right now* to stop the zombies.
  3. how that one thing will be effective.

*In other words, this one thing needs to be a capability that your career already has. You cannot make up some solution that does not exist. That would be too easy :)

I’m delighted to report that the Zombies Discussion has been the most popular by far. Even more significant to me, students’ responses are showing a wonderful level of creative and analytical thinking. For instance, one computer science major suggested creating programs that analyze live video streams, comparing appearance and movements to what zombies look like and the ways that zombies walk in order to determine when zombies are near. Not a bad solution, I think. Even better, however, were the replies . One student asked how the program would tell the difference between zombies and people in zombie costumes. Another wondered how the program would differentiate between zombies and people with mobility issues, like senior citizens or people with injuries or disabilities.

Other students have talked about military drone strikes, protecting information systems, security of the water supply, crowdsourcing reports of outbreaks, social media survivor networks, cures and vaccinations, DNA modification, landscape barriers, and more.

Zombies aren’t really my thing, but the success of this icebreaker has convinced me that they have a place in this course. I am even wondering about an all-Zombie section of technical writing. Imagine the assignment opportunities:

  • Technical Description of a Zombie
  • Instructions for Trapping a Zombie
  • Directives for Zombie Safety
  • Zombie Sighting Field Report
  • Zombie Incident Reports
  • Recommendation Report on a Zombie Apocalypse Solution

There are so many options—and a good bit of fun to be had. I swear I would try this next term if we had a way to advertise a special focus section of technical writing on my campus. Who knew that an icebreaker would be so inspiring?

What kinds of icebreakers do you use? More importantly, are there zombies in your writing classroom? Leave me a comment below to tell me about your classes. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Credit: Zombie Zone by Michel Curi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.