Activity Thirtysix Investigating introductions

Look at the introduction to two articles in your subject area. Where does each introduction end? What work is it doing? Which of the functions in the above list apply to them? Now compare what you think with the following examples.

Below are examples of parts of four introductions - in most cases, the first sentence - which we are looking at in order to see what work the introduction is doing in each case. They all come from the same book (Ramsden 1988), a collection of essays by different authors on the same theme of improving student learning.

Example 1 begins as follows:

Computers have been tested for their feasibility as learning aids for approximately two decades now.

(Laurillard 1988: 215)

This introductory sentence is a general statement - presented as fact - about how things are, a situation with which it is assumed the reader will agree. The writer is claiming the right to speak with authority on this matter. This provides a context, or setting, for exploring in detail some particular aspect of that situation in order to pose and answer questions about it. It is as if the chapter will present a close-up view which focuses on a detail in a complete picture. In this case, the discussion will be of how the use of computers as learning aids needs to be rethought in the light of different ways of defining learning and teaching.

Example 2 is the beginning and end of a two-paragraph introduction:

We stand at an important cross-roads if we wish to take advantage of recent advances to improve learning in secondary schools . . .

... In this chapter I trace the emergence of ... two [new, important] concepts and their implications for improving learning by reference to a case study . . .

Again this chapter begins with a general statement - an assertion which the author invites the reader to accept on trust, as the setting for the exploration which is the purpose of the chapter: to trace the emergence of two [new] concepts . . .'. Here, then, the introduction tells us both what the writer will do in the chapter and how (through the case study).

Example 3 is an extract from the first paragraph of another chapter:

Teaching is a complex phenomenon . . . We would argue that the nature of teaching concerns the relation between the teaching situation' and the learning outcome . . .

(Svensson and Hogfors 1988: 162)

The introduction lasts for about one page. It begins with generalizations and explanations about some ideas about teaching and learning that follow from this initial statement, and ends by saying what this chapter will be about: a piece of research that the authors carried out which is based on these ideas.

Finally, here is the first sentence from Example 4:

A patient is brought to a hospital emergency room suffering from abdominal pain. He looks sick and needs urgent medical attention.

(Welan 1988: 199)

This is a way of interesting the reader with an illustrative example, like a piece of narrative, of the complicated problem of diagnosis which the whole chapter will address. This introduction ends with a statement of what the author intends to do in this chapter and what his argument will be; that is, he announces his central idea, which is what he wants the reader to accept after reading the piece:

I will argue that by studying how students go about solving diagnostic problems we can learn how to improve our teaching. . . .

You will notice that these four authors are each setting out their own position early on in the chapter. It is as if they are saying: 'this is what we all have to agree before we can go on to talk about our topic'. In particular, they are defining themselves in some way as 'authors' of the piece, in the way we explored in Chapter 9. They all use the first person, 'I' or 'we'.

Writing introductions is not easy. Our examples are written by people who are experienced in the ways of academic writing and whose introductions display both confidence in what they are saying and a sense of self in their work. The reader may never know how unsure the author may be feeling about the work underneath. Example 3, above, is about a project 'that has not been evaluated', but this doesn't prevent the author from writing about it! Nevertheless, this introduction works successfully because the author has decided what the whole piece is about and what she wants to say about it, and that she has a 'right' to say it. Once more it is a matter of making use of your material confidently for your own thought-out purpose. This is another reason for writing the introduction after you have written the whole assignment because by then you have had more of an opportunity to take on the language and thinking of the subject, so that you will be in a better position to write the introduction in a confident way.

These four examples of introductions also illustrate that, even within this one book, in which all the chapters are on the same topic of student learning (which means that the authors all have this interest, although, in fact, they may be from different discipline backgrounds), introductions may work differently to provide the reader with a sense of direction. Remember, however, that we have only given you the flavour of the introduction in these examples, because in fact each lasts for at least one or two paragraphs. There is definitely no rule about how long an introduction should be. It all depends on what work it is doing for the assignment.

In these examples each author has decided on the title, whereas commonly in university assignments you have to 'answer' a question that has been set. In this case, your introduction may refer to the assignment question more directly. You may want to explain at the beginning how you are going to address the assignment and also find a way of establishing your own relationship with both the material and the tutor's response to it that you anticipate. Here are some examples of first sentences from students' approaches to an assignment with the following title: 'Basing your answer on two case studies, discuss how different conceptions of "ill health" affect attitudes to treatment.'

I shall be using two case studies to tackle this question . . .

There are a number of contributory factors to ill health . . .

The term 'ill health' has a wide range of meanings which are culturally determined.

The growing interest in community medicine has had an important impact both on the notion of 'ill health' and on approaches to treatment

In these cases, too, the introduction does a particular job: it sets the scene for the reader and indicates the direction of the rest of the piece.

It is important to bear in mind that you do have a choice about how you introduce your assignment and that there are many different ways of doing it. Some introductions will be much more obvious than others. These will be 'set apart' from the main body of the piece of writing, and will announce the writer's intentions. Other introductions will ignore this, leave out the writer's identity and serve more as a simple beginning or opening, which flows more seamlessly into the rest of the assignment.

In the following activity we ask you to look at a range of examples of introductions in students' assignments on the same topic. The purpose of the task is that you are aware of different ways of introducing an assignment and that you are able to notice how the introduction is working. So do try to work with others on this task so that you can compare one another's work.

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