Teaching Science Communication

Writing and presentation skills are vital in most professions for which students train and such skills are ranked highly by employers. At all levels of university education, it is essential to include training in various forms of science communication, and to help students understand why this is important. They need to realize that research results must be communicated effectively to contribute to knowledge and development. It should also be stressed that communication skills are tools for life!

This section focuses on some essentials in teaching science communication, including scientific writing, popular science writing, oral presentation and poster presentation. Examples are given to illustrate how such training can be incorporated into a university curriculum, and what to emphasize in teaching.

As a help for students a compendium, "Science Communication: A brief guide" is included in the Animal Genetics Training Resource; see "Compendia" in Tools menu; or click this direct link: [Science Communication].

This section and the compendium are based on ideas and advice in "Writing and Presenting Scientific Papers" (2nd ed., 2004) by B. Malmfors, P.C. Garnsworthy & M. Grossman, published by Nottingham University Press, UK. The book addresses scientists, teachers and students; it covers more topics, in more detail, than this module or the compendium.

Communication skills in the curriculum

Training students to improve their communication skills, such as scientific writing and presentation, should be a continuous process throughout curricula at all levels of education. Students need time to develop communication skills; it is a maturing process. Training can be delivered in specific communication courses, but that should not be the only training provided. Communication skills should be taught also within most of subject courses. Linking communication training to specific topics within a subject course will give students better motivation to improve their writing and presentation skills. Furthermore, it will enhance their learning of the subject.

There are some general skills that students need for science communication:

  • Computer skills for writing and presentation, such as word-processing and production of visuals. Students often know the basics, but they will gain from learning more details. The [MS Word Guide], the [PowerPoint Guide] and the [Excel Guide] provided in the training resource might be useful; these tools are included under Compendia: Software manuals.
  • Library skills for literature searches and Internet searches. This should be taught at the start of the studies, and throughout courses. Literature databases requiring subscription might not be available in all university libraries, but there are some free literature databases on the Internet. See: [Web Resources: Additional Information Sources].
  • Critical evaluation skills to assess sources of information. This is essential to teach to students, especially because non-refereed sources sometimes are used (e.g. Internet). For advice on evaluating sources of information, see e.g. OWL at Purdue; for web-address, see [Section 14.1] of this module.
  • Referencing skills to keep track of relevant literature found. Bibliographic software exists, but might not be available to students. Students can be taught, however, to record in a spreadsheet of word processor (or by hand) all information required for a reference list. In addition to the reference they should include the abstract, if possible, plus additional comments and keywords set by the student.

Specific science communication courses or teaching events

Specific courses or teaching events on writing and presentation might be required when students are doing their degree projects (BSc, MSc, PhD), but students also need some introduction to science communication at the beginning of their studies. Students need to become aware of the features of scientific writing. They also need to learn essentials of preparing and delivering oral and poster presentations. Details and depth of teaching will differ according to education level.

In addition to lectures, a science communication course should include exercises (for individual students or groups). Some possible exercises for students might be to:

  • Review published abstracts, tables and figures, or full papers, and give suggestions for improvements. The teacher should select papers where improvements are needed.
  • Find mistakes in a "mini-paper" (constructed by the teacher) containing lots of errors and breaking rules of scientific writing. This should be followed by a thorough discussion on how papers should be written correctly.
  • Write a brief popular science article based on a scientific paper.
  • Prepare and deliver a short oral presentation, and answer questions from the audience. A specific topic might be provided as a 1-2 page "summary" of a scientific paper/report, giving brief text under the headings Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results (including a Table) and Discussion. The oral presentation should be reviewed in a constructive manner by the presenter, by other students, and by the teacher. The exercise is even more useful if the presentation can be videotaped.
  • Design on a computer a poster that is reviewed and discussed.

Training in communication skills within subject courses - some examples

In relation to specific topics within subject courses (e.g. Biochemistry, Animal Physiology, Animal Breeding, Animal Nutrition) students can be given individual or group tasks to improve their communication skills. Some examples:

  • Write lab reports, as well as reports from study visits.
  • Deliver an oral presentation about results of group work.
  • Prepare and deliver seminars (oral presentation on a topic relevant to the subject course).
  • Carry out a project as part of the course, write a project report and present the report orally or as a poster.
  • Form a "journal club", i.e. groups of 2-4 students, to read a paper published in a refereed journal, write an abstract in their own words, and prepare and deliver a 15-minute oral presentation, including 5 minutes for answering questions. Measures should be taken to ensure that other students will ask questions.
  • Write a review paper on a topic relevant to the subject course, and present the paper orally. Allowing students to choose the topic increases their motivation. The review paper should be based on published scientific papers. Students could find relevant papers, or papers can be provided. Students writing a review paper should be assigned a supervisor. Oral presentations can be assessed by fellow students as well as by a teacher.
  • Write a popular science article by summarizing some scientific papers for a non-specialized audience.

In the following sub-sections the focus will be on some specific issues to emphasize when teaching science communication.

Accurate, brief and clear

It is important that students understand that science communication means sharing knowledge, and that the ABC of written or oral communication means that it should be accurate, brief and clear!

Emphasize that for effective communication it is not enough to think only of the topic and the message to be delivered; one must also consider the frames of reference of the audience and the questions they might have concerning the topic (Figure 10). When preparing to write or to make a presentation, students should ask themselves the questions "Who? - Why? - What? - How?". For example: "Who do I address?; Why do I communicate this?; What do I emphasize?; How best do I deliver it?".

Science communication takes many forms, such as papers in journals, reports, conference abstracts, review

Figure 10. Some components of effective communication.
papers, theses, research proposals, popular science articles, oral presentations and posters. The various forms have a lot in common, but they also differ with regard to purpose and audience.

Scientific writing

Written documentation of research results requires precision. This includes providing a logical structure, distinguishing new results from old, citing original sources, differentiating and interpreting facts, and giving sufficient information for others to repeat or check what was done. In the compendium [Science Communication] students get brief advice on the different sections of a scientific paper/report/thesis; they also get writing tips and advice on tables and figures. Students who write their text and tables in Microsoft Word may have use also of the [MS Word Guide]; and the [Excel Guide] as well (if they make graphs).

Sections of a scientific paper

Students need to know that scientific papers, reports and theses usually follow a standard format, with sections reflecting the research process. The following main sections usually are included: Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion (or Results and Discussion), Conclusion (not always under a separate heading) and References. In a report or thesis, there is often also a separate section - Literature Review. In a scientific paper, a brief review of literature is included in the Introduction (and in the Discussion). In a review paper, however, the sections on Materials and Methods and on Results are replaced by a Literature Review split into suitable sections.

Students should learn about the main purpose of the sections of a scientific paper/report, and some essential details about each of those sections. Students also should learn about the need for the title to be relevant, informative, specific and concise. Explain also that the tense used in the text varies; in general the past tense is used to describe materials or methods and results (own and others'), whereas the present tense is used to write commonly accepted facts, e.g. in the introduction and in the conclusions.

Emphasize the need always to give a reference to the source when using text, tables, figures or ideas from other people. This must be done also when students summarize in their own words the work of others (see also section 10.6, this module).

Tables and Figures

Science research results are presented mainly in tables and figures, so it is important to give students some instruction on this topic. Students should realize that tables and figures must be clear and easy to understand, without reading the body text of the paper/report, and that there must always be a reference in the text to each table or figure. They should also learn that the same result should not be presented both in a table and in a figure, and realize what might influence the choice. Furthermore, some instruction is needed on what a table or a figure should look like, as well as some details on making tables and figures.

Writing a popular science article

Science is communicated also to non-specialized audiences, so students need some training on this issue; it is a necessary skill in their professional careers. As part of their training in science communication, therefore, students might be given the task to write a popular science article.

Stress the need to adapt the popular science article to the knowledge and experiences of readers, to simplify, to put things in context, to give examples, and to emphasize conclusions and possible implications. Also stress the need to use language that is easily understood, to use illustrations and to make an attractive layout.

Some writing tips for students

Whether writing a scientific paper/report or a popular science article, students need advice on how to get started and how to improve their writing. Some advice is given in the Science Communication compendium, e.g. that it is important to make an outline, to start writing the easiest parts, to emphasize the most important, to make the text easy to read and to review and revise the text. Further advice on how to get started and to improve one's writing is given in Malmfors et al. (2004).

Oral presentation

Giving an oral presentation is a great opportunity to communicate ideas and facts - you are in contact with your audience! Emphasize that to your students. Explain also that successful presentations can be done in many ways, as long as the message gets across. The ABC of science communication, i.e. being accurate, brief and clear, should be fulfilled, and the presentation must be adapted to the audience. Remind students of the questions "Who?-Why?-What?-How?" (Section 10.2, this module). Some advice on oral presentation and visuals is given in the compendium [Science Communication]. For further advice, see Malmfors et al. (2004). Some important matters to emphasize when teaching oral presentation are given in the following sub-sections.

Preparing a presentation

The contents of a presentation depend on the main messages to be delivered and the frames of reference of the audience. Students should be encouraged to anticipate questions from the audience, which helps to adapt the presentation to the audience.

Using visuals in an oral presentation helps audiences to understand and to retain the contents. The type of visuals to use depends on facilities available; it might be slides for an electronic presentation, transparencies for an over-head projector, or slides for a slide projector. In a small room, it might be possible to use a flipchart or white/black board. All types of slides can be created on a computer using presentation software, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, but students might need some training on how to use it. The [PowerPoint Guide] included under the tool "Compendia" in the training resource can here be of help.

Emphasize the need to make slides brief and clear, to make a good contrast between text and background, to use a large font size, and to include illustrations (photos, clip art, graphs etc.) that support the text. Moreover, if electronic presentation is used, some advice on animation of slides might be required. Many animation effects are available, but using too many can distract from the message; using the simple option "appear" is nearly always the best animation.

Students need to be realistic about the number of slides to use in a presentation. Tell them to rehearse (preferably using a timer) before finalizing the slides. Underline that rehearsal is a key to a successful presentation, and that several rehearsals are needed to "fine-tune" the talk and to ensure the students stay within the time allotted. Make students realize that being well prepared is also the best way to cope with nerves.

Tell your students to talk as "freely" as possible when delivering an oral presentation. If they use a manuscript to aid their memory, it should be based on key-words only, and not a full text; key words can be written on a "handout print" of the slides.

Performing an oral presentation

Students should learn some basics for performing a successful presentation:

  • Show interest and enthusiasm.
  • Keep eye contact with your audience.
  • Speak so that you are heard and understood.
  • Use only visuals that can be seen clearly and that support your talk.

Eye contact between speaker and audience is essential, so room light should be on during presentations. Instruct your students to make slides with colours and contrasts that allow for that. If the room is dark, then the audience can't see to make notes and easily gets tired. Tell students that if they point at something on the projection screen, they should keep the pointer in the hand nearest the screen to avoid turning their back on the audience.

Also train students to ask brief questions (when being in the audience) and to give brief answers (when being the presenter), and to speak up so that everyone in the audience can hear the questions and answers.

Poster presentation

Poster presentation is used widely, and some training on designing posters should be included in university education. Some advice for designing and making posters is given in the compendium [Science Communication]; further details are in Malmfors et al. (2004).

Emphasize that a poster should be attractive, audience-adapted, brief and clear. It should focus on the main messages, and it should not be overloaded (details can be given in a handout). The poster must be seen easily from a distance to attract viewers; it should have large text, and have illustrations that support the message. The background should neither distract from the message nor make the text difficult to read.

Students can design and create posters on a computer, using MS PowerPoint, for example. They might not have access to a poster printer, but they can produce and print posters in pieces, which can be mounted on a unifying background. A simple exercise might be to let students design a poster on the computer and then review and discuss each poster, either from the screen or from a printout.

Copyright and plagiarism

Students should be informed that it is plagiarism if they use other peoples' ideas, text (exact or re-phrased), tables or figures in their writing or presentations without giving reference to the source. They should also know that materials from others are usually copyright protected; copyright is established as soon as an original material is created in a form that could be copied. A copyright (©) notice might be placed on the work to identify the copyright holder, but the work is protected even without that. Students should be told that plagiarizing or infringing copyright can carry serious penalties. At the same time, it can be emphasized that students themselves gain from giving references to sources; it shows that they have read world literature.

Plagiarism increases with availability of materials on the Internet. Search engines can be used to check for plagiarism, e.g. on key words or a string of words. However, more efficient electronic search tools exist for teachers to detect plagiarism from electronic materials. These tools can be found on the Internet. Some tools are free, but many require subscription. It might be wise to inform students that their teachers have these tools. For a discussion on anti-plagiarism strategies, see e.g. Harris, 2004; for web-address, see [Section 14.1] of this module

Plagiarism might be unintentional if students do not fully understand the rules on when and how to give a reference to the source. Some advice to students on this topic is given in the compendium [Science Communication].

Feedback and progression

Training in science communication should be progressive: simple tasks can be assigned at the beginning of university studies and more advanced tasks later. Early tasks might be performed in groups, whereas later tasks might be individual.

At each stage of training in science communication, it is important that students get feedback on their performance in writing and presenting. This feedback should be constructive: students should be told what they did well and what could be improved. Constructive suggestions will help them develop their communication skills.

Detailed advice on reviewing written papers, oral presentations and posters is given in Malmfors et al. (2004).