Show and Tell
Thursday, April 01, 2010 Expert Advice
By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist
A lot of student writers hesitate when asked to discuss their own experiences. Afraid of misstating an idea or veering too far into opinion, they tend to do more telling than showing, resulting in an inoffensive but unconvincing paper.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that a student (we’ll use a female student for this example), using her own classroom as a case study, is attempting to argue the validity of Knowles’s adult learning theory. (Bear in mind that this sort of experience-based information isn’t appropriate for every paper, but it is often required in reflections, KAM Applications, and other assignments.) Here’s the kind of discussion I often see:
Knowles (1968) asserted that adult learners bring more experience to the classroom than do their younger peers, which impacts their learning. Frederick (2006) also reported that adult learners’ experiences affect their academic success. In my classroom, the adult learners show a wide range of experience, which affects their learning. Many of these learners bring many different kinds of experiences to the classroom.
What’s good here is that the writer presents her thoughts clearly and has supported those thoughts with evidence. The problem is that each sentence says essentially the same thing: Prior experience affects adult learning. Also, the writer’s main goal of viewing Knowles’s theory through the lens of her classroom didn’t go deep enough. The writer’s observation could apply to any classroom in any school setting. She has told us rather than shown us.
Here’s an example of how she could work her classroom in a bit more meaningfully:
…experienced than young students. A student in my classroom, for instance, has 30 years of experience in neonatal care. This experience has made her knowledgeable about infant care, so she is a valuable asset during class discussion. However, her background has also tended to close her mind to emerging research in this field. As Knowles (1968) predicted, this student’s prior experience is deeply affecting her education.
This detail demonstrates how the Knowles assertion plays out in the writer’s classroom setting, which was the task of the assignment. It is more convincing than the original and, from a reader’s perspective, it is also more engaging.
This showing versus telling advice also applies to research-based writing. In the original excerpt, the reporting of research was a bit weak as well. Here’s an example of using the research to show rather than tell:
Knowles (1968) asserted that adult learners bring more experience to the classroom than do their younger peers, which impacts their learning. This assumption is supported by Frederick (2006), who studied the effectiveness of several teaching methods in multigenerational classrooms. Frederick found that educators who drew upon the experiences of the adult learners during simulation exercises had higher pass rates on those exercises, as well as higher student satisfaction rates, than those who did not acknowledge the adult learners’ experience.
Again here, the detail makes this reference to the literature more convincing and more memorable. If you’re someone who shies away from using detail, writing this way may feel a bit risky and unfamiliar. However, it will give your writing depth and conviction missing from more surface-level argument. Take the risk!