By Rodney Dick, WR Program Assistant Coordinator
Learning to research can be a daunting task for any student, but teaching research in a WR class can be just as complicated, especially when the course objective is to teach a critical understanding of the disciplinary subject matter. Teaching students to develop a research method as a primary mode of inquiry is an effective way to combat confusion and help them develop critical thinking skills. In Teaching Critical Thinking, John H. Clarke and Arthur W. Biddle say “the central feature of critical thinking is not any particular kind of thinking strategy, but the planned use of different strategies to fulfill different purposes . . . . Critical thinking requires a deliberate movement through planned steps toward some outcome” (4). The limitation of a strictly sequential research method, however, is that it ignores the recursivity, or back-and-forth thinking, of research. This article offers a strategy for researching that emphasizes the sequential and recursive nature of the process while showing how research, even when not connected to a research paper, can be an exercise in critical thinking.
The connection between research and critical thinking is obvious: the systematic location, evaluation, and interpretation of resource material involves thinking critically about the texts. Inspired by Benjamin S. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational goals, Clarke and Biddle suggest a sequential three-step model of data gathering and organization that involves critical thinking (20-21):
students develop a sense of purpose when they are forced to choose
narrowly from a broad array of sources.
Connecting: students discover relationships among the selected sources, which helps them see structure.
Interpreting: students assert meaning for the facts they have selected and grouped, and they see whether their initial purpose was affirmed or changed.
Clarke and Biddle’s model shows a progression from simple critical thinking skills, such as selecting sources, to more complicated ones, such as evaluating and analyzing those sources. Still, the process that an individual goes through when performing actual research is not so rigid and logically sequenced. Rather than being represented as a series of increasingly complex steps, the research process, like the writing process, is much more fluid and cyclical.
An Individual Research Process
What follows is a practical example of how a research method can value both a sequence of assigned goal-directed activities, as discussed by both Bloom and Clarke and Biddle, and the complex and recursive nature of the “process.”
Imagine, for example, that a student researcher’s goal is the construction of an annotated bibliography. Once a discipline-appropriate topic, gene therapy, is formulated, the researcher’s first step is to develop preliminary research questions. Asking herself “what do I want to know about gene therapy?” she decides that issues of ethics are the most interesting to her.
Once preliminary research questions are discovered, locating a few sources that answer her research questions is the first step. After locating four or five sources, she reads them, taking notes, asking herself how each source answers her research questions. By doing this, she begins to better understand some of the issues and becomes familiar with the vocabulary in the field of gene therapy (what Bloom calls a “knowledge of specifics”).
Following this preliminary search for information, she is directed to annotate the two sources that best answer her research questions. An annotation involves a number of steps: listing the source in correct bibliographic format, summarizing the source and analyzing such rhetorical concerns as audience, authorial bias/perspective, tone and style. The goal of this annotation is to develop a knowledge of the correct research format (Bloom’s “knowledge of conventions”), certain critical thinking skills, such as summary and analysis, and the ability to compare information given by different source types.
Next, based on the information she discovered in the first source-gathering phase, and demonstrating the recursive nature of her research method, she returns to the inquiry “stage” in order to redefine her research questions and narrow the scope of her topic. She performs a “keyword” search for sources—general periodical, academic and scholarly journal, and newspaper articles. From this larger pool of potential sources, she narrows her choices to the 15 to 25 that most directly answer her more focused research questions which, according to Clarke and Biddle, will require her to further refine her purpose (21).
The next step is to annotate each of the additional sources. Here again, the focus is on why the author makes the claims she does and how she addresses the research questions.
To develop an organizational pattern for the annotations, she creates an outline of her sources to discover relationships among the annotations, which correlates with what Clarke and Biddle refer to as “connecting.” When connecting, the researcher concentrates on what Bloom calls “synthesis,” or rearranging components into a new whole, and discovers a way to present the information as a whole by finding commonalties among the various sources and organizing them into categories. These categories form the structure of the annotated bibliography, and from here she works on putting together the first full draft of her final research project.
Though the focus of this example is on one researcher’s individual research process, it highlights how a research method can be at once recursive, sequenced, and highly personalized.
Teaching our students that researching is not a “one-shot” effort can be a confusing and frustrating endeavor. Considering how research can be taught as a process and also as an exercise in critical thinking is one effective solution. Just as writing can increase one’s knowledge of a topic, research can serve as a primary mode of inquiry.
Biehler, Robert F. Psychology Applied to Teaching. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Clarke, John H., and Arthur W. Biddle. Teaching Critical Thinking. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.
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