So You Want To Write a Primer

[ primer \’pri-mər\ n. 1: a small book for teaching children to read; 2: a small introductory book on a subject; 3: a short informative piece of writing. ] – Merriam-Webster

What is a CIRCL Primer?

A CIRCL primer is a concise, brief summary of a big idea in the field of cyberlearning. Primers are used to build capacity in the field and to give people a sense of cyberlearning’s main themes. They are much appreciated by people who are newer to our community and want to participate more fully.

Primers provide an overview of what has been learned on a big idea topic, but they are not a comprehensive literature review; the authors get to choose the work they think matters most to the audience.

Why Should I Contribute to a Primer?

As an author of a Primer, you’re showcasing your expertise in the area as a thought leader and helping newcomers to the field. You also get to showcase projects you think are doing good work. Primers are featured in our newsletters, on the CIRCL web site, and in social media, and they are also used in NSF-funded outreach activities like proposal-writing workshops. So you get visibility to NSF and the field.

Submit a Primer Idea

Before you submit your idea, please read the (short) Audience, Organization, Tips, and Process tabs above. After you submit your idea, CIRCL staff will contact you to follow up. Your submission can be brief; we’ll set up a time to discuss further and agree on a process to flesh it out.

Read the "Organization" and "Tips" tabs above before completing the following sections. It's fine to submit rough ideas at this stage. We'll follow up to flesh it out.

Who is the Audience for a Primer?

Early career reseearchers, graduate students, teachers, journalists with popular press, and a general education audience. For example:

  • For a proposal writer who is unfamiliar with a particular topic, the primer should provide awareness of relevant prior research and how that body of research is relevant to important challenges.
  • For a developer, the primer should help them decide if this is a knowledge base that could potentially help them with their product.
  • For a policy maker, a primer should give a sense of what prior research has accomplished.

How is a Primer Organized?

The DBIR Primer is a good model. Each primer works from a common set of headers/sections. Not every primer has to have every section. Each section is 1/2-1 page. If you are an expert in the topic area, it shouldn’t take you more than a day to write a primer.

  • Overview (1 page): A high-level summary of the big idea and context needed for the reader to understand the topic.
  • Key Lessons (1/2-1 page): Addresses the questions: What do we know as a result of research? What are lessons learned for designing curriculum and instruction or for designing future research?
  • Issues (1/2-1 page): Raises potential questions that: push boundaries of current knowledge and understanding (i.e. good topics for future research proposals); a developer would have to address in a product; a practitioner would likely end up thinking hard about as they apply the big idea. Likewise, the issues could highlight things a reviewer would ding you for NOT thinking about — you say you are using Big Data, but you haven’t talked about data privacy.
  • Readings (1/2 page): Can be a reference list or pointers to seminal studies.
  • Resources (1/2 page): Where can a reader go to learn more – websites, associations, journals, etc?

Tips for Writing a Primer

  • Minimize Jargon. Keep your sentences short. Aim it at a New York Times level reader.
  • Use contrast. How is the big idea different from a past related idea that everyone would know (an intelligent tutor is different from a drill and practice system because…)
  • The first sentence or two is particularly important. Give the reader a clear sense of the big idea and why it’s important. Don’t start with long winded need statements that tell the reader things they already know about the problems out there or summaries of prior research. Focus on giving a sense of the big idea that this is about — and motivating the reader to read the rest.
  • A little self-promotion (of your projects) is okay, but not much.

Process for Development

  1. Submit a topic to CIRCL using the form in the Overview tab. We will check for appropriateness and make initial recommendations.
  2. CIRCL staff can either interview you (1 hour or less) or you can assemble a small team (1-2 people) to flesh out a first draft and share that with CIRCL.
  3. CIRCL will interactively review the primer with 2-3 additional experts and give feedback on suggested improvements.
  4. Revise and prepare a second draft.
  5. CIRCL will review for style, completeness, etc. and send suggestions for minor improvements.
  6. Prepare a final draft.
  7. CIRCL will publish (with you a author) and promote in social media, at events, etc.

Timeline: This is negotiable. Please discuss with CIRCL.

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