What is an abstract?
An abstract is a concise summary of a research paper. It is often said that an abstract is like a summary of a story wherein you give away the ending. Writers must bear in mind that the abstract will be read by students and researchers to help guide their decisions about whether to read the article or not, and so the abstract should make sense on its own, without the need to refer to outside sources or even to the article that it is summarizing.
Abstracts are short: often numbering between 100 to 250 words in length. I often remind my students that there is limited space in an abstract, and so we must remain staunchly focused on the primary purpose of the abstract, which is to summarize our study, its methodology, and its findings.
With this in mind, I have begun teaching a basic five-sentence model for writing an abstract. I have outlined this model below.
The Five-Sentence Model:
In the five sentence model, the first sentence establishes the general issue, the second sentence provides more specific detail about the issue, and then, if possible, segues into the purpose of the study. The third sentence briefly describes the study’s methodology. The fourth sentence briefly outlines the study’s findings, often providing some specific statistical data, and the fifth and final sentence provides a brief statement of the study’s implications for society, policy, or research.
I have included a colour-coded exemplar below.
In recent years, high-profile fatalities involving school-aged pedestrians crossing the street at designated crosswalks have elevated the issue of pedestrian safety, especially with respect to highly vulnerable pedestrians. While Section 136(1) of The Highway Traffic Act clearly outlines the requirement to stop at posted stop signs, little is known about the average driver’s propensity to comply with this law. This study gained insight into this question by observing motorists as they approached a suburban stop sign, and then coding their behaviour into one of three categories: “full stop,” “rolling stop,” or “slow and go.” The study’s findings suggest that the majority of drivers do not comply with the requirement to stop at stop signs, with more than one in four drivers almost completely disregarding the stop sign. These findings suggest a need to solicit greater compliance rates amongst Ontario drivers with respect to Section 136(1) of the HTA.
Sentence Number and Objective:
1st: Establishes the general Issue.
2nd: Provides more specific detail about the issue, then segues into the purpose of the study.
3rd: Briefly describes the study’s methodology.
4th: Briefly outlines the study’s findings, often providing some specific statistical data.
5th: A brief statement of the study’s implications for society, policy, or research.
Directions for further study are not explicitly discussed in most abstracts, although they may at times refer to the general need to conduct more research in a certain area.
To my mind, the field study is the new essay. Don't get me wrong, I remain a staunch advocate for teaching essay writing (see the 80-Minute Challenge, the Art of Argument, and The Decline of the English Language), but I believe that students must understand how so much of the knowledge they are taught was actually generated in the first place. I think this will not only help them become better students, but critical thinking members of society as well.
The benefits of teaching students about field studies, as well as involving students in the development of their own field studies, has itself been the topic of scholarly investigation. Dr. Barbara Manner published the results of her own investigation of field studies as a pedagogical approach back in 1995. She discovered that involving students in the creation of original field studies revealed many benefits. "For students, field studies create opportunities for first-hand experiences that encourage critical thinking, long-term retention, transfer potential, positive attitudes towards science, appreciation for nature, and increased scientific curiosity" (Manner, 1995).
I have integrated field studies into my economics programs for at least a couple of decades now. In more recent years, I have implemented a more comprehensive field study project across all of my courses. I find that my students not only enjoy the field study project, but they become far more comfortable with the basic scientific method involved in designing a study, collecting data, and then drawing inferences from that data.
Over the years, my students have discovered so many interesting - even shocking - phenomenon through their own field investigations. Student field studies from my courses have generated data that would suggest:
These are just a few of the interesting inferences my students have discovered for themselves over the years. More importantly, while these students have been designing, implementing, and presenting their studies, they have also been examining and critiquing each other's studies in an effort to isolate possible flaws in study designs, such as post-hoc fallacies, false directions of causality, and composition errors.
Naturally, developing and implementing a field study is not something that students can do overnight. It is critical to first teach students what field studies are, and what they are not. In my program, I focus heavily on five main components of the field study. To my mind, these include the issue, methodology, findings, inferences, and directions for further study. I have included a link below to an activity that helps students explore and summarize field studies before they set about designing their own study. This activity encourages students to listen to online interviews between journalists and researchers discussing the findings of a new study. I have opted to pursue this approach because it requires students to listen to an entire discussion without searching for, or cutting and pasting, information from a web page. Moreover, this activity helps students differentiate between field studies and other things that might easily become confused with a field study, such as an experiment or mere anecdotal observations.
Consider implementing a small field study activity or even a larger field study project in your program. You may be surprised what your students will discover.
Barbara Marras Manner (1995) Field Studies Benefit Students and Teachers. Journal of Geological Education: March 1995, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 128-131.
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.