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Exploratory Writing


What is research?  What are the biggest problems when students attempt to write research papers?

Just as in other areas of WAC, research is done on the premise of “learning by doing.”  In traditional approaches, students are assigned a topic and instructed to go to the library for sources on the topic and then write the paper.  However, in such an approach students are not taking responsibility for their own thinking.  Research is a process of inquiry that begins with a question. Thus, student research should have the following characteristics:

  • The student poses a question which arises out of the subject matter being taught
  • The assignment creates an opportunity for the student to become an “expert” on a subject
  • Decisions are made by the student about the depth of information and quantity of materials that address the question
  • The student formulates his/her own ideas about the question based on the information that is available.

Ways to Help Students Develop Questions

Use exploratory writing to discover topics: Have students do journal writing to investigate issues that may lead to a topic. Brainstorm with the class several topics that have been covered in the course.   Give students a journal assignment in which they choose 1 or 2 of the topics and answer questions about it such as:

  • What is interesting about the topic?
  • What is your position about the topic?
  • What do you know about the topic?
  • What are you interested in finding out?
  • Why is your question interesting or meaningful?

Serve as a model for your student researchers: Discuss one of your research projects and explain to the students the evolution and development of the project.

Explore resources: Introduce students to the most useful resources for your field in the library and on the Internet.  Remember that research is not only restricted to library work.  Encourage students to read, discuss, and conduct surveys or interviews as part of their research.

Ways to Help Students Analyze Information

PROBLEM: One of the biggest problems students have with research is that the reading they must do is very difficult (e.g., professional journal articles, financial reports, theory-laden research reports).

SOLUTION:  Use the variety of writing activities mentioned earlier to encourage reading comprehension throughout your course.  When it comes time to do research, remind them of these strategies and how to apply them. Show them specific material you have read for research that includes notes, underlining and organization of the data.

PROBLEM:  Students are unable to read critically and understand on a contextual level. They don’t have the knowledge and skills to perceive connections between theory and data and to make connections across texts.  Thus, they will simply summarize, use quotations inappropriately, and plagiarize rather than respond analytically to what they have read.

SOLUTION:  Throughout the course, encourage written critical response to readings or data being discussed.  Such responses can be written in critical summaries, abstracts, mini pro/con arguments, question lists, "tests" against personal experience, or theory-based evaluations. Use peer-feedback to compare and discuss responses or have students submit them for your comments.

PROBLEM:  Students who are inexperienced at reading for research are unable to make distinctions among points of view and treat equally anything they read simply because “it was published.”

SOLUTION:  Throughout the course, give students experience in evaluating their readings.  Help them to explore these questions: 

  • What do you know about the author's background?
  • Do you know anything about the author’s bias?
  • When was the material published and in response to what other publications?
  • Does the author define and distinguish terms? Does the author support claims?
  • What evidence does the author use to test or support his or her hypothesis?
  • How do this author's conclusions parallel the conclusions of other authors you’ve read?

Ways to Help Students with Drafting

When students are drafting a research paper, they struggle with the following questions:

  • How do I decide what information or data to include?
  • When should I use quotations or paraphrasing?
  • How do I write the information/data into the text smoothly?
  • What is the correct format?

Here are some strategies that can help to answer these questions:

Treat a research paper as a process-driven assignment so that students can avoid mistakes along the way.  Set up a schedule for the various steps in the process and provide opportunities for peer-feedback and instructor-feedback along the way.  Some of the steps can be:

  • an exploratory journal assignment to narrow a topic
  • a research prospectus
  • a critical summary of an article central to the topic
  • a rough draft.

Show students the relationship between a present assignment and writing in other fields.  For example, the "literature review" is a summary of relevant research findings. An "executive summary" is in many ways an extended abstract.

Help students do a rhetorical analysis. Give students guiding questions to assist them in ownership of their research.  In order to do this, they need to be clear about the context, the position they will take, the purpose, and audience for their writing.  Here are some helpful questions for them:

  • What am I trying to communicate?
  • What's the purpose of my writing? What effect do I want to have on my readers?
  • Who are my readers? What do they already know about my subject? What do they expect me to say?
  • What position do I take? Should I write a critical analysis, review a controversy, analyze a controversy, provide a synthesis of current thinking on an issue?

Explain and demonstrate report structure and conventions. In disciplines such as engineering, physical, and social sciences, help students understand the purposes for the structure, content, and stylistic conventions of each section of the typical report. Use published articles to demonstrate how these purposes are achieved.   Discuss each section of the report and the specific kinds of information that each section covers.

Demonstrate the professional use of citations. Instructors often make great effort to teach students about citations, but students don’t understand the critical analytical function that citations serve.  Once again, through the use of professional articles and reports, help students to understand the use of and distinctions between quotations, paraphrases, summaries, and citations.  Better yet, use your own writing as models for analysis.

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