Producing written explanations of scientific concepts for lay readers: Theory and a study of individual differences among collegiate writers
Katherine Ellen Rowan
School: Purdue University (0183)
Date: 1985 pp: 497
Advisor: Lauer, Janice
Source: DAI-A 47/04, p. 1226, Oct 1986
Subjects: Education, Language And Literature (0279)
ProQuest Document Number: 303409058
UMI Number: AAT 8606609
To identify the qualities of good written explanations of scientific concepts for lay readers, the author reviewed research in rhetoric, psychology, and science education and developed a theory of the explanatory aim. One type of explanatory writing, transformative explanation, was analyzed in detail. This type was defined as discourse longer than a sentence but not more than several pages designed to create understanding of “counter-intuitive” scientific concepts which have differing naive and scientific meanings, e.g., heat, light. Good transformative explanations were defined as accurate and adaptive. Accuracy was defined as expert consensus on the adequacy of an explanation for lay readers, adaptiveness as the extent to which explanations rejected readers’ naive beliefs, acknowledged their apparent plausibility, demonstrated their inadequacy, and presented exemplified, scientific accounts of the misunderstood phenomena.
The author next reviewed communicative skill research and developed a model of types of knowledge and attitude likely to be associated with skill in transformative explanation. The model generated six hypotheses which proposed that (1) topic knowledge, (2) social cognition, (3) rhetorical knowledge, (4) science anxiety, (5) writing apprehension, and (6) locus of control would be significantly associated with this skill.
University students (169) were participants in a study testing this model. Students read passages about the properties of light and then explained several of these properties, through writing, so that hypothetical elementary school students could overcome an erroneous belief about an optical illusion being real.
Results provided partial support for the model: hypotheses (1), (2), (3), and (5) were supported. The topic knowledge measure, semesters of high school science, and the rhetorical knowledge measure, SAT-Verbal, were associated with accuracy and adaptiveness, and several types of anxiety were inhibitors of transformative skill. In addition, one extraneous variable, SAT-Mathematics, was also associated with accuracy and adaptiveness.