Why Do I Have to Write That?: Compositionists Identify Disconnects between Student and Instructor Conceptions of Research Writing that Can Inform Teaching

Andrea Baer

Abstract


A Review of:
Schwegler, R. A., and Shamoon, L. K. (1982). The aims and process of the research paper. College English, 44(8), 817-824.

Objectives – This classic article discusses research-based writing assignments. Schwegler and Shamoon sought to identify differences between college students’ and college instructors’ conceptions of research and research paper assignments, particularly in terms of their purpose and process. The authors also sought to identify common features of academic research writing that could inform writing instruction about research writing.

Design – Qualitative interviews with college instructors and students about their views of the research process and about forms of research writing. Instructors were also interviewed about evaluation standards for academic research papers.
Setting – Unspecified, though the description suggests a college or university in the United States.

Subjects – College instructors and college students. (Number of subjects unspecified.)

Methods – The authors, a university writing program director and a writing program instructor, conducted one-on-one interviews with college instructors and students about their views of research and the research paper. Questions focused on conceptions of the research process, the purposes of research, and the forms that research writing takes. Instructors were also asked about standards for effective evaluation of research papers.

The limited description of the research methods and interview questions employed in this study hinder the ability to critically assess its validity and reliability. Potential limitations of the study, such as selection bias or unclear wording of interview questions, cannot be adequately assessed based on the provided information. The authors also do not identify limitations of their study. As is discussed in more detail in this review’s commentary, the study does not conform to the conventions of most research studies from the behavioral, health, physical, and social sciences. The authors’ methods, however, may be better understood in light of particular disciplinary approaches and debates in Composition Studies.

Main Results – Interviewees’ responses illustrated notable differences between college instructors’ and college students’ conceptions of the process, purpose, forms, and audiences of research paper assignments. While instructors understood the research paper to be argumentative, analytical, and interpretive, students generally described it as informative and factual. Students, when asked why research papers are assigned, identified purposes such as learning more about a topic, demonstrating one’s knowledge, or learning to use the library. Instructors indicated that the purpose of the research paper includes testing a theory, building on previous research, and exploring a problem that has been presented by other research or events (p. 819). At the same time, most instructors described research as an ongoing pursuit of “an elusive truth” (p. 819), rather than as primarily factual in nature. According to Schwegler and Shamoon, instructors also indicated during interviews that research and writing involve a clear though complex pattern that is evident in the structure and conventions of research papers. For example, the research process usually begins with activities like reading, note-taking, identifying problems with and gaps in current research, and conversing with colleagues. These instructors also reported that writing conventions which are implicitly understood in their fields are used by other scholars to evaluate their peers’ work.

Reflecting on these interview responses, Schwegler and Shamoon suggest that pedagogical approaches to writing instruction can be informed both by acknowledging disparities in students’ and instructors’ conceptions of research and by identifying shared characteristics of academic writing. The authors therefore make several general observations about the nature of professional research papers and describe the structure and conventions of academic research papers. They conclude that the structure of scholarly research papers across the disciplines reflects the research process. Such a paper opens with identification of a research problem and a review of current knowledge and is followed by a variation of four possible patterns: 1) Review of research, 2) Application or implementation of a theory, 3) Refute, refine, or replicate prior research, and 4) Testing a hypothesis ( pp. 822-823). Schwegler and Shamoon indicate that the key features of scholars’ writings are also apparent in student research papers which instructors evaluate as highly-ranked and absent in lower-ranked papers. Furthermore, they provide an appendix that outlines the essential textual features of a research paper (Appendix A) (p. 822). It is unclear, however, if these descriptions of scholarly research writing are based on the instructor interviews or on other sources, such as previous analytical studies or an analysis of academic research papers from various disciplines. The researchers do not articulate the specific methods used to arrive at their generalizations.

Conclusion – The authors conclude that students’ and instructors’ differing conceptions of the research process and the research paper have important implications for writing instruction. Many of the interviewed instructors described research as involving methods that are quite different from those needed for most research paper assignments. The discrepancies between class assignments and academics’ approaches to research suggests that differences in instructors’ and students’ views of research often are not addressed in the design of research paper assignments. Instructors who teach the research paper should ensure that the purpose, structure, and style of assignments reflect what content-area instructors will expect from students. Schwegler and Shamoon argue that because the basic conventions of the research paper generally apply across disciplines, instruction about those conventions can be integrated into composition courses and lower-level undergraduate courses. Such an approach can assist students in better understanding and approaching research writing as would a scholar in the given discipline.

Keywords


information literacy; instruction; writing

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