Helping pupils to write good experimental methods ‘by zombies’

Ages ago I saw a tweet (The original twitter post came from the book The Reader’s Brain How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer by Douglas Yellowlees but I can’t remember who tweeted, I’m sorry!) showing a novel way of making sure you’re writing in the passive past tense. The tweet said it helped people to ‘write like scientists’ however when I have since tweeted about this I have got some fairly vociferous responses saying scientists don’t write like that and it is old fashioned and should be discouraged. In many ways that’s correct, scientists write in lots of different ways to engage the difference audiences that read their work however passive past tense is the language of the chemistry experimental section and so I use this with pupils (aged 11-18) and undergraduate students in chemistry.

The ‘by zombies’ technique for writing a method

A sentence in a method is written in the correct voice and tense if the phrase ‘by zombies’ can be inserted into it and it makes sense. So for example:

I lit the Bunsen burner and heated the water for 20 minutes. (Not suitable as written in the first person)

Light the Bunsen burner and heat the water for 20 minutes. (Not suitable as it is an instruction, not what was carried out)

The Bunsen burner was lit by zombies and the water heated for 20 minutes (Suitable)

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The pupils really like this way of helping them to write well. It gives them immediate check on whether they are writing in the correct tense and voice and it is really memorable for them. They like how quickly it makes them sound like mature writers. It gives a lot of banks for their buck!

I always introduce the technique and give them some practice at it (see the above slideshow) before I sent them off on a method for an experiment done in class. An example of y8 (age 12) work is shown below. This was for a project one ‘What is the best food-based indicator?’

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