Research Writing for
By Tony Baker
“How many pages does it have to be?” “How many sources do I need?” These are often the questions students ask when research writing is assigned. Preoccupation with formal requirements indicates that many students associate research writing with lengthy, sustained prose relying heavily on secondary sources—in other words, a term paper. Though a term paper requires a wide range of writing skills and fluency in disciplinary research conventions, research writing does not need to be as grand in scope.
Research, writing, and critical thinking skills may be developed using a series of assignments that build upon each other. In Teaching Students to Think Critically, Chet Meyers describes five types of assignments that develop critical thinking—Brief Summaries, Short Analytical Papers, Problem-Solving Exercises, Activity Projects, and Simulations. Research components can be integrated into both formal and informal writing assignments.
Students unfamiliar with a discipline benefit from summary assignments early in a course. Identifying, processing, prioritizing, and summarizing central concepts and issues from readings or presentations help students become familiar with the essential ideas and language of a discipline. Summarizing techniques are invaluable to research note-taking. The summaries may be quickly responded to, either by the instructor or by classmates. In addition, students can practice documentation by citing the source they summarize. Students may benefit from class discussion of summary models.
Short Analytical Papers
An integrated series of short research papers allows a building-block approach to critical thinking. Early assignments may use simple operations such as summarizing, while later assignments may build more sophisticated critical skills such as recognizing assumptions and critiquing and creating arguments.
Sequencing short research papers lets students practice thinking, writing, and researching over the semester and offers them prompt feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their papers. Short analytical research papers are valuable for practicing library search techniques and formal disciplinary citation procedures (e.g., MLA, APA, CBE, IEEE).
Problem-Solving with Popular Media
Instructors foster critical thinking whenever they “build bridges between concrete, everyday ideas and more abstract, academic concepts” (77-78). Students more readily assimilate new material by connecting course content to the world outside the university as represented in popular media. Since students are more familiar with popular media such as newspapers and magazines, these media provide a solid base from which to begin critical inquiry into a disciplinary issue. Popular sources can provide an evocative contrast to more scholarly texts in the classroom.
Exploring the assumptions, biases, points of view, or opinions underlying media presentations of classroom material (e.g., editorials, columns, news articles) builds analysis and critiquing skills—important aspects of critical thinking. These exercises also sharpen sensitivity to a source’s authoritativeness (or lack thereof).
Students apply theory to experience by conducting primary research outside of class. Firsthand observation or interviews not only introduce students to disciplinary research methods, but also provide them with concrete contexts to apply to issues raised in class. With written instructions as a guide, students can practice recording and analyzing data, writing about the implications and limits of their mini-research project, and presenting their findings in a format appropriate for such research.
Activity projects should be manageable over a few class sessions; such projects are ideal for collaborative learning. Conducting research of their own allows students to address, to some degree, issues of reliability, validity, and generalizability that face disciplinary researchers. Writing the results of their own research projects provides students with a comparative basis for reading, interpreting, and analyzing more formal and extensive disciplinary research reports.
Providing realistic context for research writing prepares students to apply course content to real-life situations and adapt research to suitable writing formats. Simulations “require students to assume a role in the problem situation and to present their analysis or findings to a particular audience“ (85). Writing as an advisor helping the President make a policy decision, or as a researcher reporting on market trends for a company’s vice president, for example, may help focus students’ research writing. “The more realistic the simulated situation, the more students are forced to grapple with real problems and freed from the abstraction that they often suppose characterizes academic writing” (86). Constructing realistic writing situations encourages engagement, often leading to internalization of new knowledge and ideas.
These five types of writing assignments,
used in a meaningful sequence, may help students make the critical
thinking connections necessary to succeed in a disciplinary class.
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