September 18th, 2012

Teaching Research and Writing Skills: Not Just for Introductory Courses


Most professors want students to know how to research and write in their fields. In fact, many degree programs now have introductory courses for majors with content that addresses these research and writing basics. However, the assumption that students learn everything they need in one course is a faulty one. All of us who teach courses for majors need to regularly revisit this content if students are to develop these research and writing abilities. Let me be specific and suggest six things professors can do that help students improve in both areas.

1. Show them how to find appropriate research sources and methods. Introductory courses do a fine job of giving students an overview of research; however, in subcategories within disciplines, research can be conducted very differently. Students writing papers on Chaucer will approach research one way, while those examining contemporary literature will tackle their subjects differently. Thus, professors need to show students how researching their particular areas differs from more general approaches, whether that involves taking the students to an archive, helping them develop surveys, getting librarians working with them on primary texts, or showing them how to design an experiment.

2. Teach them the structure of articles in the field. Again, articles in subfields of the same discipline structure content quite differently, and students do not automatically see those structures. In my upper-division courses, I have students outline two critical articles, looking specifically at the location of the thesis (and subtheses, where appropriate), how explanatory footnotes are used, what types of sources the author used, and the overall structure of the argument.

3. Give them student work to examine. By showing work from previous students, professors can make clear what worked in those papers and where students fell short. If we only provide students with professional work, we miss opportunities to talk about those places where students often struggle, especially with structure. Frequently, students do not value the work of other students. Thus, professors need to provide positive models that show what students are capable of and that clarify our expectations.

4. Have them evaluate and defend their sources. In my first few years of teaching, I would see students’ papers refer to leaders in the field, but reading the papers showed me that students did not recognize the importance of these people. I would often write notes about their importance, but, by then, it was really too late for them to use that information. Now I have students submit a proposal and an annotated bibliography in which they tell me why a source is credible. In doing so, they often learn what other works that person has published or how he or she is viewed in the field. I’ve also noticed that this step helps students see connections among their sources.

5. Set aside time for peer review. For some reason, we tend to think that peer review (or peer editing) works best in beginning composition courses. After that, we assume students don’t need it or that they will do it on their own. However, as professionals we know that peer input is always valuable. Most of us wouldn’t think of submitting a paper we had not first shared with trusted colleagues. And if the submitted paper is peer reviewed, we benefit from that critique. Students don’t know how we operate, so we need to explain and then create a space for them to function as we do.

6. Make them write multiple drafts. Again, we assume that in those early courses students learn the value of a writing process that includes revision and rewriting. Several years ago, before I began requiring drafts of my upper-division students, a student was in my office crying over her paper. She had earned a D, the lowest grade she had ever received on a paper. What I realized, in looking at her paper and listening to her, was that many of these problems could have been solved with just a bit of feedback earlier in the process. Her peers had missed her leaps in logic, but I could have caught them and helped her to improve her argument rather dramatically. Needless to say, all my students now provide me with a draft when they give one to their peers.

We need to remember that introductory courses are a first encounter with our fields. The idea that a student learns everything after being taught it once or twice is shortsighted. Our students need repeated chances to learn how our fields approach research and writing, if we want them to graduate ready to become members of our disciplines.

Dr. Kevin Brown is an English professor at Lee University.

Reprinted from “Not Just for Introductory Courses” The Teaching Professor, 25.8 (2011): 1.