Better Research Basics, One Sentence at a Time

Breathes there a professor of any subject with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “Today’s undergraduates are hopeless at research!” (apologies to Sir Walter Scott). It is easy to blame high schools or freshman English classes, but that doesn’t fix our problem. As a frustrated educator of future teachers (Clouse) and a 20-year veteran of teaching college writing and research (Nelson), we obviously sympathize and often feel blamed. We have found that a better approach is an interdisciplinary effort that gives students ample opportunities to practice and develop their writing and research skills. The cumulative effect of this approach not only benefits faculty, but our students seem to appreciate and feel less intimidated working within this method as well.

  • If they can do it once — If students can learn to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and cite sources correctly just one sentence at a time, they can do it 100 times. These basic skills can be taught in easy-to-grade, small assignments. Later when we ask for a 10-to 20-page research paper, or that 100-page dissertation, we can concentrate on the soundness of their research rather than those frustrating mechanics.
  • Do less to get more — Assign students to find an important quote in the day’s assigned reading, cite it correctly, and explain why they chose it. They will keep up with and be more engaged with the reading while learning or polishing basic skills one small step at a time. Correctly paraphrasing just one sentence can convince students to do more than change a word or two.
  • Use already scheduled reading assignments — Any class can be used to teach research basics: summarizing and citing a chapter from a history text, an explanation of a math concept, a scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” a recent journal article, or even the professor’s lecture. Grading is doable because the professor is already familiar with the material as well as the source and can easily spot student spin or embedded opinions.
  • Create your own style guide — Although most English professors teach MLA, publishing embraces a wide range of styles. Instead of choosing one and asking students to purchase another book, we give them one-at-a-time models to follow (but not the same source) to teach the habit of looking for style guidance. We also create a generic in-text citation, for example (Smith 2013:24). Later it will be easy to leave out the year or add a comma to fit a specific style. The same technique can be used to create Works or Literature Cited entries, one entry at a time. The class designs citation styles for unusual sources in order to understand how scholars can recognize various media (For example, radio—KVLF/1240. Morning Show, Alpine, Texas. 2 February 2013: 7:30am). Students eventually collect a variety of citation styles for publishing in their field: university presses, journals, and ezines.
  • Use technology — Incorporate the use of Google Docs to allow students to collaborate and recognize their own and others’ mistakes and provide feedback on correct citations. This occurs outside the classroom and can be reviewed briefly, preserving valuable class time.
  • Raise the bar — As students’ ability to correctly identify and cite sources improves, add more complexity to the assignments: blending sources, adding outside sources, and creating a more formal Literature Cited page.
  • Get creative — As faculty, we also like to challenge ourselves: how many research basics can we teach using one sentence at a time?

In courses where long research papers are required, we use these short assignments as early “journal responses” (to the textbook) or “response papers” (to handouts, outside reading, or lectures) to teach the basics while students are still gathering information.

Reading these very short assignments gives us inside information about what our students are learning (or more often not learning) and what they find confusing. If they paraphrase romanticism, for instance, as falling in love, we can correct that misconception immediately. Students tend do their own work when the assignments are very short, perhaps realizing that cheating would be easy to spot. We also use these short assignments for an always-handy, end-of-class exercise on those occasions when we’ve completed the day’s lesson, but still have 10 minutes of class time left.

None of us learned to write well, especially within our own fields, in 12 years of public school or in one or two additional semesters of college. Sharing the responsibility for helping students to catch-up on research fundamentals is a realistic and proactive approach we can embrace, not to mention a better alternative to bemoaning the fact that students often come to us with poor research skills.

Dr. Barbara Barney Nelson is an associate professor of the languages and literature department and director of the Quality Enhancement Plan at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

Scarlet Clouse is the coordinator of field experiences and teaches in both the undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.