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Technical Writing: Helping Students Recognize Relevance

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

Technical Writing: Helping Students Recognize Relevance

Nonfiction text can only benefit readers if they find it USABLE,
and usability has three distinct dimensions:
1. understandability,
2. findability, and
3. relevance.
While relevance is obviously a relation (X might be simultaneously
relevant to Y but not to Z), it still seems like the easiest and most
familiar of usability's facets for student writers to appreciate.
Unfortunately, as Marion Goldstein, Amanda Crowell, and Deanna Kuhn
(all psychologists at Teacher's College, Columbia) have confirmed,
developmental issues often make relevance confusing for younger
nonfiction writers to manage thoughtfully and accurately:

Children and adolescents have difficulty
reasoning about the formal relations among
propositions independently of their truth
value, in the case of both deductive and
inductive reasoning.
["What constitutes skilled argumentation and
how does it develop?" Informal Logic, 29(4),
2009, 374-395.]

Appreciating just what is relevant to a claim calls for a fair amount
of cognitive maturity that students must gradually develop. "Relevance"
does not seem to be a technical term so student writers may overlook
its multi-faceted character until you point that out.

Relevance and Logic

You may need to help students decide, for example, whether it is
sufficient or necessary conditions that are "relevant" when they
discuss some result. To insure the result, one needs a relevant
SUFFICIENT condition (e.g., raising water to 100 degrees C is
sufficient under normal pressure to boil it). To prevent a result,
on the other hand, one needs only to remove a relevant NECESSARY
condition (e.g., instead of suppressing a subject's entire
immune system to prevent psoriasis, one can just remove the genetic
flaw in hair follicles that triggers that autoimmune response, a
necessary condition [see www.technologynetworks.com/immunology/
news/psoriasis-may-be-triggered-by-genetic-changes-in-skin-stem-
cells-327678 ].

Relevance and Evidence

If two alternatives are mutually exclusive (Jones or Smith committed
the murder) then evidence for either one is also relevant to the
other, an interaction that students often overlook. While ordinary
detectives gather evidence only about preferred suspect Jones
(fingerprints, alibis), the canny hero of a detective show often
achieves dramatic success by presenting evidence instead that
incriminates competing suspect Smith, thus solving the crime in
an alternative way. "Jones evidence" is of course relevant to
Jones's guilt, but here "Smith evidence" is also relevant to Jones's
guilt, which inexperienced writers often ignore unless coached.

Multiple Causation and Relevance

A third relevance situation involves the reverse of the exclusive-
cause case above: multiple, separate causes may all be relevant to
a desired result simultaneously. Achieving safe drinking water in
a region with weak public-health practices, for example, requires
attending to multiple, interacting contamination sources all
relevant at the same time:
1. bacterial contamination (biology),
2. heavy metal contamination (geology),
3. hydrocarbon contamination (chemistry).
Inexperienced writers who focus on the relevance of any single
contaminant by inadvertently overlook the simultaneous relevance
of other, nonexclusive contaminating materials.

No reader wants an overwhelming dump of irrelevant verbiage when
studying an already complex technical topic--too much information
undermines text usability for sure. But more (or different) facts
may truly be relevant than a quick, logically superficial look
reveals. So thoroughly assessing relevance is an important
textual responsibility that your coaching of student writers
may help them embrace.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html

Want to help students see their writing as another case of
engineering design--as "text engineering"? See
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/text.engineering.html ]

 

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