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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Motivating an Instruction Checklist for Students

Technical Writing: Motivating an Instruction Checklist for Students

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Motivating an Instruction Checklist for Students

Diverse empirical studies spread over several decades have confirmed
the benefits of using an explicit checklist or set of guidelines,
such as the one at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis0.html
to teach students of all ages, from middle school up, how to draft
effective instructions (or how to improve your own or someone else's
draft):

1. Activity.
People are more willing to make text changes, to edit their flawed
instructions, if they are armed with a checklist of flaws to look
for and improvements to consider.

2. Confidence.
Students asked to perform peer editing on drafts from other
students will comment more and more helpfully when a checklist
of goals scaffolds their review.

3. Higher baseline performance.
Boston surgeon Atul Gawande found that he could significantly improve
the "baseline performance" (for example, the rate of post-operative
infections or hospital readmissions) of even highly talented
medical colleagues by encouraging them to use overt checklists to
manage high-risk procedural gaps or flaws. He promoted this approach
to practitioners of any profession (including technical writers) in
his book The Checklist Manifesto (Picador, 2011, 240 pages).

One concern some students have with using such skill-building
checklists, however, is that they seem just an academic gimmick.
This approach may help in the classroom or on school assignments,
but do working adults ever really use such good-instruction
checklists on real-world projects once they leave school? A
revealing case from engineering practice shows that the answer
is "yes."

Mechanical engineer Carol Ingram recently retired from the National
Nuclear Security Administration (part of the U.S. Department of
Energy). Her professional responsibilities for supervising reliable
use of high-risk equipment led her to explore human-factors issues,
which in turn led her to investigate the role played by training and
documentation. She found herself coaching other engineers not just
on the equipment but on communicating about the equipment.

One key challenge was how to get engineers, who were busy running
a production facility, to (1) draft efective preventative maintenance
(PM) instructions (covering complex, safety-relevant tasks) for their
colleagues and (2) revise or improve weak instructions by spotting
usability flaws in text drafted by others. Carol's response was to
promote using a "document validation and feedback form" as a
scaffold to help technical staff members find and fix PM flaws (the
form is shared online at
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_GpgvtIPLFRV2txSnlrX2RUOGc/edit?usp=sha... ).

From our perspective the most interesting aspect of Carol's specific
"document validation" form is that virtually every "evaluation factor"
on it in the first dozen (labeled E1 through E12) corresponds
(singly or jointly) with an item on the general good-instruction
guidelines for student writers. Here is the mapping between these
two scaffolds:

(E1) Do the instructions begin with the real first step/task (often
gathering tools or material)?
(E2) Are the steps presented in the right order or scrambled?
(E3, E4) Are long complex steps needed? too long? not thoroughly
accurate?
(E5, E8, E12) Is each step precise and complete enough to actually
be followed (excluding irrelevant but including vital details)?
(E6, E10) Is each step an action (featuring a verb), easy to find and
visually distinct?
(E7) Are problems anticipated, warnings included, troubleshooting
tips offered?
(E9) Are rate or frequency issues addressed (if relevant)?

The student checklist thus emerges from this comparison as an
authentic, generalized version of a practical form created by
working engineers to solve serious, real-world technical communication problems.

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