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Understanding your audience: Writing for learning

Laura Frost Book Cover

Laura Frost
Laura Frost, Ph.D.

Laura Frost is a professor of Chemistry at Florida Gulf Coast University and Director of the Whitaker Center for STEM Education. She is coauthor of the textbook General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry, published by Pearson Education, and has also published a workbook of guided-inquiry activities.

Frost’s current research interests include the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and Chemistry Education. She employs guided-inquiry approaches to learning in the classroom and is a workshop facilitator for the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) project.

“I love teaching, and even more, I love watching students learn,” explains Frost. “Students in my classes learn best when they discover the knowledge for themselves with my assistance.”

Here Frost shares how her teaching style drives her approach to textbook authoring.

TAA: In your opinion, what is the most important factor to consider when writing a textbook?

Laura Frost: “Know your audience. In my particular case, as I approach my twentieth year of teaching chemistry, I recognize that most of the students who will read my textbook don’t know much chemistry; they are intimidated by the content, and are taking the course as a requirement, not an elective. The majority of today’s students are more concrete thinkers, so it makes sense to me to introduce abstract concepts through concrete examples. Students easily recognize the concrete examples and are able to apply a new abstract concept through the example. Because this is my audience, I have chosen to write with this ideology. Textbooks written for students who have developed abstract thinking skills in earlier, introductory classes may not need as much concept development for their readers. Effective teaching in the classroom can translate very nicely into effective textbook writing.

Knowing your audience also applies to writing academic journal articles.  In this case, the assumption is that the readership for a given journal is well acquainted with the subject area, so it isn’t necessary to educate the reader on terminology and concepts as they are experts in the field like you.”

TAA: How does the way that you teach influence the way that you write?

LF: “Today we understand a great deal about how people learn. Lecturing to students and expecting them to learn material is ineffective for many instructors. Our brains don’t process most pieces of information through passive absorption.  We learn new knowledge by linking it to prior knowledge. Constructivist learning theory teaches us that learning occurs through a cycle that includes exposure to concrete experiences that lead to an understanding of more abstract concepts.

My approach to teaching includes a lectureless classroom where I act as a facilitator of learning using guided inquiry activities, based on constructivist learning, to actively engage students at their level of understanding in a group learning setting. This approach to teaching is reflected in my writing. If students learn through experiences, it seems important to be able to provide concrete examples and applications in textbook writing to help students conceptualize ideas.”

TAA: What pedagogical tools do you use in your textbooks, and how do you use them?

LF: “I begin each chapter section with an Inquiry Question (IQ) that prompts the student to direct their reading of the content in that section. I like the IQ format—it serves the same purpose as a learning objective but gets the students thinking as they are reading. The IQs are then revisited in the end-of-chapter summary. I also utilize another pedagogical feature I call Solving a Problem. This tool offers the student step-by-step instructions for solving some of the more challenging concepts in the book.

The constructivist approach to teaching guides my actual writing when introducing readers to new abstract concepts. I develop concepts by showing a concrete example first before introducing the more abstract term.  This approach makes my introductory chemistry textbook a more effective learning tool.  In 2010, I surveyed students with the question: “How much did the textbook help with your learning?” On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being very much help, students using my textbook gave ratings a full point higher than the previously used textbook (3.6 ±1.3 vs. 2.4±1.2) to this question. Additionally, three-quarters of the students agreed that the textbook helped with their learning. This was evidence to me that regardless of the instructor, this book was having an effect on student learning.”

TAA: How does the way your textbook is written differ from that of other entry level texts?

LF: “Let me answer that broad question with an example specific to chemistry texts. There are many terms in chemistry for things that we cannot see, in fact, sometimes it is like speaking a foreign language to the novice student—this is true in many science disciplines. For example, in chemistry we have a term called the mole. No, this is not a skin marking or a small digging mammal. This is merely a unit for counting atoms, similar to how we use units like dozen to count eggs or reams to count paper.  A strong introduction to the conceptualization of this concept helps students to use the mole unit later in calculations. Many textbooks skim over this simple concept by introducing calculations that use the mole prior to generating a basic understanding of the unit. Entry level texts should lay the groundwork.”

TAA: Can you share any writing or organizational tips and strategies that you employ to keep you on track with your writing projects?

LF: “I verge on obsessive when it comes to planning. My position as STEM Center director keeps me very busy, so I have to plan my writing well in advance to meet deadlines.  I am more of a tortoise than hare writer.  I look at the entire work and what has to be accomplished.  I break up the work into smaller chunks (like chapters) and impose my own deadlines for the smaller parts so that I can meet the publisher’s deadlines. I recently decided to keep a log of hours worked and pages written, as this type of information can come in handy when negotiating future editions.

Because my textbook writing is for introductory students, I often enlist the assistance of non-chemists to read pieces to make sure they can follow the writing. These are often colleagues in other STEM fields, non-scientists, or students. As an academic journal writer, in addition to your co-authors, it is useful to have others in your general discipline read pieces for clarity and understanding before submission.”

For more on how people learn see Gazzaniga, M. S., Ivry, R. B., & Mangun, G. R. (2008). Cognitive Neuroscience:  The Biology of the Mind (3rd ed.).  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company and Sousa, D. A. (2011). How the Brain Learns (4th Ed.). Corwin Publishing.

For more on constructivist learning theory see Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 2, 176–186, and Kolb D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.