Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. (Albert Einstein)
Conference abstracts – a brief description of the research or skills that you plan to present at an academic or industry gathering – can be tricky. There are parsimonious word limits within which you must put your best foot forward, yet you need to include enough detail to convey the value and differentiation of what you are proposing for the selection committee. It’s a bit like advertising copy: the idea is to grab the customer right from the start, and then convincingly demonstrate why your product is necessary and desirable. With concision, clarity and simplicity.
I use four key questions to guide my abstract-writing. This keeps me focused on articulating what the value-add will be to both the conference and the audience, since value-add is what the selection committee really cares about (while wading through reams of submissions).
Here they are – my four guiding questions (accompanied by supplementary explanatory questions):
- Why is it relevant to the audience? (Why should they care?)
- What are the key components (points/data/major findings) of your talk/session? (What do you bring to the table?)
- What instructional strategies will you use? (Is this going to be boring or amazing?)
- What will people take away? (How will this session make the world just a tiny bit better?)
I have been on both sides (submitting and reviewing abstracts), and in my experience, if you can satisfactorily answer the above questions in a brief and well-written abstract, your chances of success will be greatly increased.
Bonus tip: Conferences have varying formatting requirements, word limits, and submission guidelines. Make sure to check all of this on the conference website before agonizing over your submission.
It’s not rocket science
In a recent article in the journal Medical Education, Dr. Glenn Regehr champions a radical rethink of education research. Drawing on insights and advances in subatomic and macro physics, he argues against the imperatives of proof, generalizable solutions and simplicity (all drawn from the prevalent theoretical and methodological approaches in medical research broadly). Instead, Regehr suggests that we embrace the construct of uncertainty (“elegant messiness”) in unique education settings (“context is the irreducible covariate”).
Does a narrow focus on the success of medical education initiatives diminish the utility of education research? Here is Regehr’s thinking, with which I’m inclined to agree:
“Rather than dwelling on the questions of what is going on, we jump straight to the issue of whether it worked. We keep tweaking when the answer is ‘No’, but are satisfied as soon as the answer is ‘Yes’. We celebrate and publish our positive results as proof of our rightness and treat the negative results as ‘failures’ to be ignored or even buried. As a result, the information we share with the larger education research community through the talks we give and the studies we publish tends to feel more like a ‘show-and-tell’ exercise than an engaging and challenging contribution to the community’s understanding of learning processes and education practices.”
These are brave words, especially in a field that has historically privileged positivist epistemology over interpretivist approaches (a debate for another day). Yet the parallels between dynamic systems described in chaos theory, and its application to learning contexts and communities, are striking.
Both are highly context-sensitive and characterized by an “exponential growth in perturbation.” In other words, while all education settings have broad similarities, it is their unique and particular differences that matter with respect to learning outcomes and applications. Small contextual variations (perturbation) can lead to massively divergent results (that’s the exponential growth part).
Take-home messages and food for thought:
Competence isn’t contained within an individual practitioner – it emerges via interaction with an always-changing context.
Education research should focus on sharing new and better ways of thinking about clinical teaching/learning problems, issues and assumptions.
We need a shift from showing what we did right, to articulating what we learned along the way.