Creating Writing Objectives

The traditional research paper or term paper can be one of the most valuable assignments we give students, especially in upper-division and graduate courses where students are learning to pose research problems in their majors. However, despite our admonitions that students should do their own thinking and analysis in term papers, many students regard a research paper as an encyclopedic “all about” report rather than as a thesis-governed response to a significant and interesting problem or question. We all know students’ tendency to manufacture a term paper by patching together passages closely paraphrased (or even copied) from their sources. There is something mechanistic about the way many of our students produce research papers, something disturbingly unlike the motivated inquiry and analysis that we value.

And yet many students pursue research with gusto. The question before us as professors is how we can transform students from uninspired pseudo-plagiarists into engaged researchers. First of all, the wording of an assignment can make an enormous difference if the instructor switches from topic-centered assignments to problem- or thesis-centered assignments. Making this shift in focus encourages students to do research to solve a problem: engagement with a question thus gives purpose and direction to their work.

Good research writing is intellectually demanding and cognitively complex. Students often turn to plagiarism because they have no other coping mechanisms. Unless students have been educated with an inquiry-based pedagogy either before college or in previous courses, they have had little experience in posing questions. Unfamiliar with thesis-governed writing, they do not see their own essays as responses to interesting questions, nor do they see question asking as one of their roles. Faculty, therefore, must not only motivate students to become question askers but also guide them toward asking discipline-appropriate questions that are interesting, significant, and pursuable at their level of study.

Another major challenge for many students is the use of sources. Students, for the most part, are not sophisticated users of college libraries beyond knowing how to find books. Often they are unaware of other resources, including the various online resources. Even if they have a general idea about how to use the library, they are apt to know little about the specialized resources used by a particular discipline such as music. Students need to understand the reasons that a researcher uses a library: first of all, to find information, data, and evidence bearing on a problem, the raw material of primary sources that becomes either support for the writer’s argument or the object of analytical scrutiny. But researchers also use libraries for a second reason: to position themselves in the conversation of secondary sources surrounding the topic – previous and contemporary scholars with whom the writer agrees or disagrees. Equally difficult for students is figuring out what to do with the sources – when to quote, when to paraphrase, when to summarize an entire argument, when simply to reference. Moreover, students need to work these quotations and paraphrases into the texture of their own prose, carrying on an argument in their own voices. The beginner, lacking a voice and an argumentative purpose, seems primarily interested in manipulating sources. We therefore need to teach students the thinking and writing strategies that lead to sophisticated use of sources. This is no small chore.

Other skills that inexperienced student writers need to develop include:

  1. Managing sources. Many students simply photocopy articles and passages from books rather than taking notes, reflecting on their reading, and making decisions in advance about what is or what is not important. They also get little practice at summarizing arguments. We cannot teach students how to manage notes until they learn about academic discourse – why they are using sources and how this material might be incorporated into their essays.
  2. Many students need to learn the proper formats for citing sources. The wide variation in formats from discipline to discipline, and even the variation within a single discipline (for example, traditional vs. Author, Date citations) further complicates this problem. Students can be referred to the sections in this website that address style, citation, and bibliography.
  3. Establishing a rhetorical context, a role, an audience, and a purpose: depending on the discipline and the nature of the assignment, the position and role of the writer can vary greatly. Students who are writing comparison and contrast papers in a music history class (possibly from a particular historical perspective), an analysis papers in a theory class (possibly using a specified analytical method), and reflection papers in a music education class written from a personal perspective, to consider just a few examples, may confuse the kind of writing they are being asked to do in an assignment, particularly if they come from other cultures where the educational process may be very different. Thus it is essential that the assignment clearly specifies the kind of writing that the student is being asked to do. It is also best if the assignment is given in writing, so that the student can refer to it at a later time.

There are no easy ways to address the problems discussed here. As previously mentioned, research writing is cognitively complex; it requires a sophisticated view of the role of research in creating knowledge and of the conversation of competing views surrounding most research questions. Possible solutions include:

  1. Encouraging students to think of their research topic in terms of a question or problem rather than a topic area. This reminds students of the difference between an “all about” paper and a thesis-governed paper focused on a problem. Another alternative is to give your students a problem to explore or a thesis to defend.
  2. Requiring a prospectus, which demands considerable preliminary research, will help prevent an end-of-the term rush job. Such a prospectus will help to focus students’ attention on the articulation of a problem, and will reveal to you those who need early assistance, possibly from the writing centers on campus. Also, the kinds of entries on the annotated bibliography will tell you something about the sophistication of their research skills.
  3. Teaching the prototypical structure of essay writing: writing titles; writing an introduction (problem, thesis, overview); developing ideas (outlining, first draft, revision); writing a conclusion.
  4. Assigning an exploratory essay due several weeks before the final research paper. This could be a “low stakes” assignment, a first-person narrative account of the students’ research process that traces the evolution of their thinking and explores issue in depth. Evaluating such assignments does not need to require a lot of time, especially if they are not graded and the comments made are limited and focused on the most salient points. Often teachers enjoy reading the exploratory essays more than the finished research paper.
  5. Giving several short research assignments or a structured assignment that breaks projects into stages.

Although there are some generic skills of research that apply to all disciplines, the real nitty-gritty of research writing – as a process of inquiry, analysis, and argumentation – needs to be taught within each discipline. When instructors appreciate the complexity of academic research writing, particularly its strangeness to students unfamiliar with academic discourse and unaccustomed to associating writing with their own curiosity and wonder, they can better understand (but not condone) students’ tendency toward plagiarism in research writing. As a final suggestion, it is useful to create a file of model research papers written for your courses in the past. Attach to each one an explanation of why you admire the paper, pointing out features you particularly like. If possible, include the prospectus and all the drafts of one of the papers. You can put this file on library reserve.

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 12.
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