Scaffolding transition from otherwise formal presentations to scientific presentations

Chemistry (senior) undergaduate students’ presentations in English can be more than satisfactory when it comes to organisation, opening phrases and transitions, academic content and delivery   (pronunciation, pace, volume, posture, eye contact etc.). Yet, it often bugged me that when I had to organise lessons in preparation for scientific presentations, students seemed to nod in agreement with what they were presented with and then most of them deliver an otherwise “good” presentation that did not really meet scientific standards. Not surprisingly, there were many times I felt unable to pin down the exact reasons for their lack of “appropriacy”, and yet every time I did so, I felt I was not explicit enough.

This year, I decided to scaffold their transition to scientific presentations with a series of rather simple classroom activities that involved participatory and collaborative learning, peer feedback and teacher feedback.

The first lesson aimed to help students notice different approaches of “transferring” content from a text to a visual (powerpoint slide). They were provided with the transcript of a speech/presentation and  had to work in pairs to produce visuals they would use if they were the speaker.

The presentation was not scientific (strictly speaking) but it contained many science-related concepts that undergraduate science students would not grapple with.  Given the  time limit, I asked three students to come and draw/write on the board the content or scheme of two visuals only. They did so at the same time so that there was no spillover effects.

Not all students came up with the same “from text to slide transfer” approach. There were students whose visuals were very neat and to the point. Others who had the main idea  but crammed too much content in one place, and others that didn’t know that they shouldn’t really copy chunks of “text” in their visuals.

Not surprisingly, when I asked the rest of the class to say which approach depicted the content in the most succinct, concise and appropriate way there seemed to be unanimous agreement. Following that, students then had to identify and explain what made one visual better than another. Interestingly, senior science students seemed to agree that their preferred visuals were the ones that were to the point or those that contained schemes, figures, tables, word-tables and diagrams and fortunately, this seems to agree with current guidelines and trends.

Students made a few slides ( a,  b) using powerpoint or keynote and apparently, it did not seem very daunting. Even the ones that seemed to struggle at first, hit the nail on the head later on.

Really happy to see  that this deductive scaffolding method worked better than  my usual “conversational” lectures.






Greek and Latin Prefixes in Biology

As I am researching for my new book “English for Biology EAP”, I could not help but notice that there are so many words starting or ending with Greek or Latin words, i.e. prefixes and suffixes.

For example, the prefix eu- in this discipline means “true”. Take for example the word “eukaryotic”. As “eu” means true in this context and “karyo” means “core” or “kernel”, these terms clearly explain that eukaryotic cells feature a clearly defined (i.e. true) nucleus protected by a membrane. This feature sets them apart from prokaryotic cells which lack a membrane-incased nucleus.

For more on prefixes and suffixes in Biology visit this link


Professors might find themselves replaced by a video…

I recently read this article about traditional lectures being outdated, that engaging learners in actual activities (i.e. active learning) and flipping your classroom are now imperative despite the challenges.

The author explains why professors might end up being replaced by videos. To some this might sound like a threat but I happen to do this very often when I think my students need more time for practice or discussion. Although you can’t convince everyone that they need to study or do homework before they turn up in class, when they do so, you can see the benefits.

For more ideas on how to do this, you can read the whole article here:


Research limitations you might want to consider when you write a critical review

Always acknowledge a study’s limitations. It is far better that you identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor and be graded down because you appear to have ignored them.

Keep in mind that acknowledgement of a study’s limitations is an opportunity to make suggestions for further research. If you do connect your study’s limitations to suggestions for further research, be sure to explain the ways in which these unanswered questions may become more focused because of your study.

Acknowledgement of a study’s limitations also provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the research problem, understood the relevant literature published about it, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem. A key objective of the research process is not only discovering new knowledge but to also confront assumptions and explore what we don’t know.

Claiming limitations is a subjective process because you must evaluate the impact of those limitations. Don’t just list key weaknesses and the magnitude of a study’s limitations. To do so diminishes the validity of your research because it leaves the reader wondering whether, or in what ways, limitation(s) in your study may have impacted the results and conclusions. Limitations require a critical, overall appraisal and interpretation of their impact. You should answer the question: do these problems with errors, methods, validity, etc. eventually matter and, if so, to what extent?


To find a list of common limitations read the rest of the article in the above link.


On authentic presentations, slides and webcasts

Audio slides accompanying published Materials science related research papers in Elsevier can be a useful resource for ESP classes. Following students’ work on vocabulary, themes, functions and genre of a research paper or even as a note-taking task, it can surely provide authentic input to ESP students.

I usually ask my students to read one article and assume it is the only valuable source of information, the only input or resource they have available. I then ask them to design the first four slides (with a two-minute time limit). It’s interesting to see how students veer away from copying and pasting long chunks of undocumented text when they realise they all have the same resource. It is also surprising to hear that they start to realise paraphrasing skills are essential for presentations too.

Using the webcasts or audio slides from Elsevier adds to their learning experience as they can compare their own versions to the one provided by the authors. Hopefully, with the right scaffolding tasks, they might notice some differences between recommended presentations styles in EAP/ESP books and actual researchers.

Needless to say, students love to be provided with rules or guidelines that demonstrate what is right or wrong, what is savvy and what is poor. In this context though authenticity may come at a price; there are times when I feel uncomfortable trying to explain why a researcher does not comply to the norms of Presentations slides structure and/or style. There could be numerous reasons for this; genre-specific and culturally-bound norms may determine content and style, respectively. Also, presenters may be either novice or well-established in their field, thus using different discourse markers depending on their degree of certainty and confidence.

Yet, there are privileges in this fluidity and plurality; students eventually realise that language is not rigid and the way scientists communicate their science cannot be strictly prescribed or invariably restricted to previously established norms.