Lilian Mina, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, U.S.
Megan McAfoose, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, U.S.
Megan Moulden, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, U.S.
Shannon Zilavy, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, U.S.
Since the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defined undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” (Beckman & Hensel, 2009, p. 40), it was mostly taken for granted that this kind of research is housed and nurtured in the sciences with a few shy attempts coming from the humanities. Undergraduate research is often thought to take place in labs where science professors collaborate with individual undergraduate students on summer or extracurricular research projects (Buddie & Collins, 2011; Kinkead, 2003; Lopatto, 2006). For years, research in the humanities was seen as lagging behind other disciplines (Buddie & Collins, 2011; Grobman, 2008) due to different reasons, such as the individualized nature of research in the humanities (Louis, 2008) and the fossilized format and structure of the research papers still advocated by faculty even today as Grobman and Kinkead critiqued.
Despite the traditional views of research still employed in the humanities, there have been many calls from within the disciplines to transcend the research methods of the sciences and to develop models of undergraduate research best suited for studies in the humanities. For example, these unique models can be best implemented in class-based research in English composition classes. In this article we argue that English composition classes, particularly research writing classes, present themselves as an available and convenient venue for students to learn about and engage in actual research projects. In addition to being required courses for almost all undergraduate students across higher education institutions in the U.S., English composition courses are typically offered to students early in their college education. Consequently, these courses provide students with an opportunity to learn about the research process and problems so that they can make use of this knowledge about research in the rest of their academic life. In this dialogue article, I describe one English composition class that adopted inquiry-based learning as its framework and the research projects in which students engaged. Along the faculty member’s description of the course, three students share their experiences doing research in this class.
Undergraduate Research: Definition and Features
There is an array of definitions to consider when attempting understanding what undergraduate research is. Like CUR, Lopatto (2006) defined undergraduate research as “doing original research while being mentored by an experienced researcher” (p. 22), while Kinkead (2003) specified it as the research that includes “scientific inquiry, creative activity, and scholarship” (p. 6). Emphasizing the benefits of undergraduate research to students, Wolfgram and her students (2012) believed undergraduate research is a pedagogical practice that “stimulate(s) curiosity” in students about their world and would “prepare them to succeed in a highly competitive global market” (p. 1). These definitions point out three important features of undergraduate research: students produce original work, students benefit from their research projects, and faculty mentor students in their projects.
Originality of Students’ Work. Kinkead (2003) asserted that the outcome of undergraduate research should be any form of original work. Furthermore, in her article, Wolfgram (2012) explained the opportunity for such allows students to discover knowledge for themselves rather than synthesize it from secondary resources. Through engaging in their own projects, students become creators and owners of knowledge instead of only channeling it from resources.
Along the same lines of thought, Enfield (2012) argued that when students partake in original research, they come to know new knowledge that they did not experience in their prior undergraduate research. Students learn through “knowledge-generating activities” like generating and forming research questions (p. 3). Through formulating their own research questions and answering them through original research, students reach more original and genuine knowledge than they can find in print and online resources. This knowledge and learning is what Beckman and Hensel (2009) described as the ultimate goal of undergraduate research. It may not, though, be the sole outcome of undergraduate research as I discuss next.
Benefits to Students. A number of scholars reported long lists of benefits undergraduate students gain when they engage in their own research projects. For example, Buddie and Collins (2011) synthesized some of these benefits from a number of previously published scholarship. Their list includes the following benefits: better independent thinking, better critical thinking skills, better abilities to synthesize information, ability to analyze literature, problem solving skills, and the ability to analyze research findings.
Additionally, Lopatto (2006, 2010) reported the benefits undergraduate students mentioned in response to his large-scale survey. In his earlier account, these benefits included considerable gains in different skills: research skills (e.g. data gathering and analysis), professional skills (e.g. presenting and publishing research), and personal skills (e.g. self-confidence and independence). These findings consolidate those synthesized by Buddie and Collins (2011) and emphasize the value of engaging undergraduate students in original research opportunities. In his later account, Lopatto reported what students said; that engaging in research motivated them to learn better and that they became more actively involved in their projects and research problems. Consequently, Lopatto concluded that engaging undergraduates in research helps achieve several instructional goals while aiding students to become more responsible for their learning.
It is important to bring to the readers’ attention two points about the benefits reported by both Buddies and Collins (2011) and Lopatto (2006, 2010). The first point is that these benefits come almost exclusively from students within the physical sciences with few examples from students in the humanities. This juxtaposition attests to the wide gap in published scholarship between undergraduate research endeavors in the sciences and in the humanities. This gap can be rapidly and easily narrowed with class-based research in English composition classes. The second point to be garnered is that those benefits are reported from students engaging in collaborative research projects mostly initiated by faculty. In these projects, students were mentored by those faculty members in additional research projects. Kinkead (2003) emphasized the essential mentoring role of faculty by asserting that mentoring from a faculty is a major feature of undergraduate research, which brings us to the third feature of undergraduate research as understood from the aforementioned definitions.
Faculty Mentorship. Students in the sciences report they collaborated with faculty members on research projects that faculty assigned them (Lopatto, 2006). In these research projects, students worked closely with a faculty member to implement the assigned project either during the summer or as an additional activity. None of the research endeavors reported in responses to Lopatto’s survey was class-based research. In his article, Louis (2008) described one of these extracurricular research projects in which he mentored a group of undergraduates to implement a grant-funded research project. Reading Louis’ article closely, readers may spot a number of caveats to doing undergraduate research as an additional activity rather than a class-based one.
The first caveat is that students participating in these projects do not have a chance to pursue their own research interests; instead, they execute the faculty member’s research agenda which may be different from that of the students’. In Louis’ (2008) research project, the faculty member’s agenda may have been to complete the project to report findings to the grant funding agency. Such an agenda could not mean much to a student who engages in these projects to learn more about the research process. Besides, when students pursue their own research interests and agenda, they maintain their interest and enthusiasm about research and produce more meaningful knowledge.
Another caveat in these extracurricular projects is the limited number of students who have the opportunity to participate in them. In these projects, a faculty member usually chooses one or, in best case scenario, a small number of students to form a research team. These small-scale collaborative projects may not be very helpful for the large scale research initiatives the Boyer report (1998) recommended. Such projects confine the benefits for a small number of undergraduates while excluding the majority of students, depriving them of any real opportunity to engage in original research.
Time is another crucial factor that may deter faculty from engaging with students in research. From Louis’ (2008) description of the research project he conducted with his students, it is clear that the project was time-consuming and labor-intensive. Without the funding opportunity, faculty or students may not have been as motivated to get involved in and complete such projects. In their synthesis of previous scholarship on undergraduate research, Buddie and Collins (2011) voiced faculty’s concern by stating that the biggest obstacle with coaching undergraduate research is a lack of time. Without exceptional incentives and compensation for faculty members, mentoring undergraduate research becomes an exhausting, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and unrewarding experience. Young (2008) starts his article by posing a question that responds to this particular drawback of extracurricular research. Young asks “How can we involve students in delivery methods that are more cost effective than one-to-one?” (p. 30). This is a significant question under the current conditions of shrinking budgets and limited grant funding opportunities.
The drawbacks of engaging a small number of undergraduate students in mentored extracurricular research projects contradict the purpose and core definition of undergraduate research. The practice of original research becomes limited to some students rather than being extended to all of them. On the other hand, a more inclusive learning space is thought to be present in class-based research. Besides these mentoring problems, students may have difficulty balancing the workload of doing research with faculty alongside their coursework (Lopatto, 2010). These problems with the current practices support the argument that class-based research can be a better approach to engaging undergraduates in research. On one hand, class-based research minimizes duplicating the work students have to do for both tasks; on the other hand, it saves faculty time and energy while securing mentoring opportunities for students.
In discussing class-based research, Healey (2005) used a slightly different term, ‘inquiry-based learning’, and defined it as the “forms of learning driven by a process of inquiry” (p. 73). This definition spotlights the learning that occurs through undergraduate research. Beckman and Hensel (2009) supported the same contention by arguing that the purpose of undergraduate research is to “foster student learning” through the practice of research (p. 40). Class-based research comes as a response to the Boyer report (1998) in which it was recommended that “every course in an undergraduate curriculum should provide an opportunity for a student to succeed through discovery-based methods” (Wolfgram et al., 2012, p. 17). Although the Boyer report was mainly concerned with research universities, this recommendation can be extended to all higher education institutions because as Lopatto (2006) asserted, undergraduate research can take place at any college level and in virtually any class. Research can also happen across different disciplines. By researching English composition classes, which are required in almost all U.S. higher education institutions, the Boyer report’s recommendation can be fulfilled, and genuine learning can occur.
In addition to the Boyer report’s (1998) recommendation, Buddie and Collins (2011) attested that one of the major problems with engaging undergraduates in research is their lack of knowledge about research. In other words, because undergraduates do not have adequate knowledge about research, they are unable to tolerate the ambiguity that is part and parcel of the research process, particularly in the humanities. Therefore, having undergraduates do research as part of class work can be useful in promoting more research initiatives. In class-based research, students have the opportunity to communicate regularly with their instructors, voice their concerns, and receive constant feedback on their research process. This approach to research also helps students learn research more systematically.
Comparing extracurricular, independent research to class-based research, most students who participated in Lopatto’s (2010) study suggested that some skills, including reading and understanding published literature, research ethics, and research writing style, are improved better in class-based research settings.
The advantages of class-based undergraduate research over additional extracurricular research make it imperative that classes in different disciplines adopt an inquiry-based approach to research in undergraduate classes. English composition classes can be a suitable environment for students to learn how to do research early in their academic lives. Even though research in the humanities, particularly in English composition classes, has not been the prime focus of much published scholarship, I strongly contend that it can be the driving force of research in higher education institutions.
Mina: Research in the English Composition Class
First-year composition and research writing classes are now required liberal studies courses in most American universities and colleges. They are usually offered in either a two-semester sequence during freshman year or a two-year sequence within both the freshman and sophomore years. In either case, introducing students to class-based research in one of these classes is essential in order to equip students with the required research skills explained earlier. According to Buddie and Collins (2011), students who have a chance to engage in actual research their first years of college have a better opportunity to develop more intellectual skills. Buddie and Collins’ argument means that the purpose of introducing research in these early classes should address two basic considerations.
The first consideration is presented by Beckman and Hensel (2009) who argued that first-year research can be more process-oriented. In other words, in the first two years, undergraduates’ focus should be on learning the research process rather than the research outcome, and as students advance the focus should shift. This argument is highly important because English composition classes can prepare students to learn the research process and become more aware of it as they move to their disciplinary courses.
The second consideration comes from Grobman (2008) who asserted that the purpose of introducing undergraduates early to research should not be the value of their findings or the groundbreaking conclusions they would reach. The purpose, instead, should be to provide a safe and scaffolding environment where students can learn about and practice research in a way that is inclined to make them ready for producing more original work and to contribute to the knowledge in their respective disciplines in the rest of their college education, graduate school, or career.
In an article coauthored with her students, Wolfgram (2012) described her approach to undergraduate research in an upper-division course. Although her students reported a lot of gains and much authentic learning during that course, I strongly believe that upper-division courses are relatively late to introduce undergraduates to the research process. Students near the end of their college education may not get further opportunities to participate in research, unlike earlier courses that not only engage students in research, but may also stimulate interest in and engagement with discipline-specific research. Such interest in disciplinary research was reinforced in Grobman’s (2008) first-year composition class when he asked his students to research the same topic from their own disciplinary perspectives, thus linking a humanities course to students’ disciplinary interests.
With these benefits and considerations in mind, I recently designed and delivered an inquiry-based English composition class in fall 2012. I present this course as evidence that English composition classes can embrace original research activities in the humanities and, accordingly, may narrow the gap in research between the sciences and humanities. In the following section I report on the design and implementation of the course and the research projects three students engaged in for a whole semester.
An Inquiry-Based English Composition Class
According to the Composition II Handbook at my university, students in ENGL 202 should, among other things, “develop rhetorical skills for informed inquiry” (p. 3). The Handbook continues by encouraging faculty teaching this course to include “surveys and interviews as field resources for synthesis projects” (p. 4). Enacting these statements from the Handbook, I designed a course that revolved around the theme of new technologies. In this course, students were required to conduct their own research on technologies in which they were interested. As a humanities course, the focus of the class was on the social and cultural aspects of new technologies; the course syllabus reads “Through inquiry-based research, together we will unpack the depths and widths of cultural or social technology related issues that may have interested you for some time.” This statement guided both the design and implementation stages of this course.
Designing the Course. As I designed the sequence of assignments and requirements in this course, I reflected on my own experiences as a researcher and then attempted to create a similar research process to my students. I wanted students’ first experience with research to be as authentic as possible. As a doctoral student working on my dissertation, I thought of designing the course in the stages included in my dissertation research: preparing a research proposal, writing a literature review, designing research methodology, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, and discussing findings and drawing conclusions. With these stages in mind, the course included four major writing assignments: a research proposal in which each student explained their research idea, research questions, and possible data collection method(s); a synthesis paper where each student reviewed and analyzed secondary print and digital sources in order to build their argument for the importance of their research project; a methodology paper that included detailed information about participants, data collection method, and the instrument of data collection, such as a survey or an interview protocol; and a final research paper in which students presented the data they collected, an analysis of this data along with possible interpretations of them, and a discussion of their findings.
Designing my course around research activities raised two important issues: research writing textbooks and the role of theory. Very few popular research writing textbooks introduce teachers and students to the actual research process. The majority of textbooks are dedicated to issues like the writing process, synthesizing knowledge from secondary sources, documenting sources, and writing mechanics. Although this topic needs further empirical research to make any valid conclusions, I assume that such textbooks might be a strong reason why many teachers in the humanities tend to limit research writing classrooms to a limited type of instruction. According to Grobman (2008) and Kinkead (2003), the instruction in humanities courses pays attention to the conventions of writing and documenting sources at the expense of producing real and meaningful knowledge. Most humanities courses end up with research papers packed with information collected and paraphrased routinely from secondary resources. For these reasons, when structuring the class I selected a traditional textbook, which I supplemented with chapters from a second textbook and my own research knowledge and experience.
The second issue considered when designing this course was what role theories should play in students’ research projects. Contrary to the foundational role theories play in graduate and senior undergraduate research, I think that theories should have no place in my course or in grounding students’ research projects. I had three reasons behind this decision. The first reason is that this was an interdisciplinary course that includes students from a wide spectrum of majors such as criminology, psychology, music, and education. I questioned whether or not I would be able to evaluate or give feedback on theories germane to students’ disciplines. The second reason I chose to abandon theory in my course was because students were only at sophomore level, meaning they may not have had enough exposure to theories in their respective disciplines. Most students in their first two years at college concentrate on finishing their liberal studies and general education courses, putting off their major courses to the second semester of their sophomore year and later. The third reason I excluded theory from the course was because of Beckman and Hensel’s (2009) argument that in the early years of introducing undergraduates to research, the emphasis should be on learning the research process and problems, not on the findings arrived at through the implementation of theoretical perspectives. Hence, I made the decision that theories would not have room in this research writing class and that we would direct our attention to learning the research process through the students’ execution of actual research projects.
Implementing the Course. Following the four-stage design of the course, the initial step in getting students started with their research projects was to help them find a technology-related topic they were passionate about. I wanted each student to develop their own research agenda free from any pressures. The only direction I gave students was to consider new technologies used in their respective disciplines as a possible starting point. Towards that end, students wrote a series of what I call Thinking Pieces in which they thought, considered, and contemplated all possible ideas they could write about until each of them selected their special topic. In the coming section, three students will talk more about their experiences with those Thinking Pieces. Megan McAfoose talks about how she used those pieces as a thinking aloud technique to get her ideas in shape; Megan Moulden discusses the challenge of choosing a topic for her original research; and Shannon Zilavy demonstrates how she used Thinking Pieces to document her thoughts and ideas.
McAfoose: Thinking aloud in thinking pieces. The first paper in which I wrote about Wikipedia for this class was my Thinking Piece #1. In this piece, I summarized some of the reasons why I wanted to write a paper about Wikipedia. From writing Thinking Piece # 1, I thought more about what interests me about Wikipedia for Internet research. I learned that there are many arguments both for and against students using Wikipedia in class for internet research.
To expand my research, I wrote Thinking Piece #2. At this point in my research process, my idea of writing about Wikipedia for this class was very concrete. Because this topic is very multi-faceted, it would also be very debatable. Not everybody looks or feels the same way about whether or not the information found on the website can or cannot be trusted.” After writing this piece, I learned a lot about what direction I wanted to take with my research paper about Wikipedia. I also thought more deeply about what aspects of Wikipedia make it a good area of topic to research.
Thinking Pieces #1 and #2 were significant for me in my research process because they helped me decide the topic that I would be researching for the rest of my semester in this course. These two papers helped me determine what characteristics about Wikipedia were interesting to me. Writing these papers helped me narrow down exactly what aspects I would be taking a deeper look at in my research process.
Moulden: Challenge accepted. Beginning my research was the hardest part. I didn’t know where to start or what I wanted my topic to be. Writing the Thinking Pieces really helped me get a grasp on what I wanted my overall topic to be. I thought this class would be the most beneficial to me if I selected a topic that went along with my major, Human Resource Management. I started brainstorming how technology affects the workplace. I used my experiences from working for my parents and researched information online. The Thinking Pieces helped me to develop my ideas on paper. Throughout the three Thinking Pieces, I changed and revised my topic multiple times.
Zilavy: Writing and documenting thoughts. My research story begins with me seriously contemplating what I was going to research. I think one of the hardest parts of this series of papers was deciding what it was that I was actually going to write about. Then I saw a commercial advertising the controversy between Amazon’s Kindle and physical books, and it dawned on me: I actually prefer eBooks, but I didn’t have any knowledge as to why I actually preferred them. So as I began searching the Internet for specific topics about eBooks, the majority of them were relating to eBooks and the classroom. I proposed this idea in one of my Thinking Pieces (TPs), but as I was typing I thought of another idea—an idea that just randomly popped into my head. The most helpful aspect of this stage was in the TPs that gave me feedback that allowed me to form a research question and topic. TPs also allowed me to document my thoughts and be able to form them along themes that better helped my research follow a steady pattern, instead of sporadic random ideas here and there.
Mina: As a teacher, I supplemented Thinking Pieces with intensive and extensive in-class free writing to help students explore themselves and their interests. All this writing paid off, and students could pin their research interests down very early in the semester.
McAfoose: The focus of my research writing class was about technology. I was first instructed to choose a topic that interested me in the area of technology. My teacher warned my class that if we did not choose a topic that interested us, it would be hard to conduct our research process throughout the class. I soon came to realize that she was correct as I would be living, breathing, and most importantly researching the topic of Wikipedia for the next fourteen weeks.
Moulden: A quote that I feel best describes my experience in Research Writing 202 is, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” This quote is a great description of how I felt beginning my research. I have never collected my own data for a research paper before. I knew it would be a learning, but exciting, process.
My major is Human Resource Management so I chose a topic that would benefit me in the future. My research question is; how much company time do employees spend using the Internet for personal reasons and how are companies being affected?
Zilavy: Research Writing takes effort and time as is, but imagine adding the extra processes of writing about a topic that has little to no previously published literature to guide you. This is what I ended up doing in my research writing course.
As our general topics in the class revolved around technology, I decided to look into eBooks. I could have gone the easy route and looked at how eBooks correlate with academics: this was easy because almost every article I could find talked about this idea. However, I own a Kindle myself and thought about how different books are always advertised on Amazon than in regular bookstores or department stores that have a reading section. Basically, my research question that I had formed was: “How do Amazon and companies like it drive the publishing industry?” This question had literally no past research done anywhere that I had previously looked.
Mina: Obviously, my students had relatively different expectations before they stepped into my class. They were challenged during the first session as I read the syllabus, and they knew what kind of projects they were required to engage in to complete the course. The challenge, as Moulden put it, was accepted by my students, and it was time they thought holistically about their projects as they developed the first stage of their paper: the research proposal. In order to create a scaffolded environment that encourages students to resolve their doubts and hesitations about the research process, I had my first one-on-one conference with each student to discuss their proposals and help guide their improvement.
Student research topics were varied and included both disciplinary and personal interests. Students interested in disciplinary topics chose topics like new technologies in physical therapy, new digital nuclear imaging technologies, and using iPads in teaching middle school science. On the other hand, many students chose to pursue more personal research interests, such as the effect of social networking websites on the social skills of teenagers, teenagers’ awareness of security measures on social networks, and using e-textbooks versus print ones. McAfoose says, “The topic of Wikipedia has always interested me. I always wondered how such a widely used resource could be banned in so many classrooms for internet research. My research experience in this English class allowed me to explore the information available about Wikipedia and find out new and interesting facts.”
The next stage in the research process was to review the relevant literature. The students’ reflective letters suggest many of them found the literature review to be the most challenging task. As students went through literature review stage, they attended two workshops at the university Writing Center on finding reliable digital sources and documenting their sources. They also had to write a number of response papers and develop an annotated bibliography. My main goal during the literature review stage was to foster students’ critical thinking skills, which I think was largely achieved from what I read in students’ synthesis papers. Many students ended this fundamental stage by refining their research questions based on the literature they had read and synthesized. They were able to critique their research questions and argument before they could revise and change them. This stage was a milestone in students learning the research process because they learned to be more flexible and open to ideas, which they could then modify to reflect the outcome of their literature reviews.
After completing the literature review, students were then ready for the methodology stage. We opened the methodology process with free writing. By once again using free writing in class, students were able to think more thoroughly about their participants, their data collection methods, and data gathering instruments. Guided by their research questions, students made informed decisions on whom to interview or survey for their research projects, how many participants they would contact, and the suitable modality of data collection: face-to-face, phone, or online. Completing this stage required a great deal of contemplation. I always emphasized to students that a research project is like a huge puzzle, and each stage should put more pieces in place. As I gave them feedback on their methodology paper, I tried to show them how their methodology would help or hinder the complete picture of their research. Students also had time to group-workshop on their instruments in class for more feedback and insight from their peers.
After the methodology stage was complete, it was time to collect data. Some students collected data through online surveys, others through print surveys; some through phone interviews and others through face-to-face interviews. Simultaneously, we started discussions on data analysis and arranging findings in themes, as McAfosse and Moulden discuss:
McAfoose: In my research process, I collected data in two main ways to support why Wikipedia was beneficial for students to use in their classrooms for Internet research. The first way that I collected data was through internet research. I found information by searching for articles written about Wikipedia on academic websites. By searching for information found on the Internet about Wikipedia, I learned some background information about the website. This information helped me form an argument about why teachers should allow their students to use Wikipedia in their classrooms for Internet research.
The second way that I collected data was through interviews that I had with five different teachers. These teachers ranged from elementary school level to college level. I wanted responses from both elementary and middle school teachers as well as high school and college teachers to see if the viewpoints of students using Wikipedia change or stay the same as students get older. In my interviews with the teachers, I asked each one of them nine different questions about how they feel about students using the website Wikipedia for internet research. I chose to collect data through interviewing teachers because it seemed like the best way I could find out the most detailed information about why teachers feel positively or negatively about students using Wikipedia.
Moulden: I had to first decide on how I wanted to collect my data. I chose to create a survey. I wanted to get in contact with number of employees and employers about their own Internet usage in the workplace. My biggest challenge was deciding whom to distribute the surveys to. Since I am a college student, I don’t have many contacts in the work field outside of family. I began my research by emailing the surveys to family members. I asked each person to forward on the survey to other co-workers or friends who would be willing to take the survey. I overcame this challenge and received over 30 responses to the surveys. Through distributing my survey, I was able to get in contact with one of the Human Resource Managers at Pittsburgh Technical Institution. I have been in contact with them and hope to pursue an internship there this summer.
Mina: After students had taken some time to analyze their data, I had my second one-on-one conference with them. As this was my students’ first time working on data, it was crucial I met with each of them to help them dig deeper in their data and reach more profound findings. Although my goal was not for students to reach new knowledge in their research projects, it was significant for them to learn how to deeply analyze data and critically interpret the findings their research endeavors yielded. For me, this was part of developing their research and analytical skills. Afterwards, students wrote their final research papers where they merged their revised literature review, methodology, findings, and discussion and conclusions in one paper. In the next section, students share their final reflections and experiences in this course.
McAfoose: Designing and conducting a study. Before this research class, I had never conducted a study where I had to interview different people about the subject that I was researching. I was able to find out first hand why teachers felt the way they did about Wikipedia. I learned more about my research topic by asking questions that helped me understand the different sides of the argument that I made throughout my research paper. This will help me in my future because I will most likely have to interview someone again about a topic that I will be researching. Since I have already conducted a research project in my Research Writing class, I will be more prepared to conduct an interview in my future career and academic studies.
Moulden: Research and career. Completing my own research was a huge benefit for me. It allowed me to not only add to my research paper, but it also helped prepare me for my future. I learned a lot about my writing skills and myself. I learned how to integrate sources and conduct my own research. I now know how to construct a survey and distribute it. I also know how to examine the results and write a conclusion. This will definitely help in my future. It also allowed me to form more contacts in the work field and hopefully help me in my future job search. I am extremely satisfied with the work I have completed over this semester and my final research paper. Collecting my own data for my research paper was a very exciting and rewarding experience and I am very proud of it.
Zilavy: Research and my academic major. As my approach to looking up exact “word-for-word” literature on this idea inevitably failed, a lot of the ideas and skills I learned in this course enabled me to form research through these inconveniences. The course gave a step-by-step process on forming research by focusing individually on each step (Proposal, Literature Review, Methodology, Findings, and Conclusions). By doing this, the entire project was more in depth and it was easier to form a final project. One of the most important skills that helped my research specifically was learning to form conversations between different articles and forming themes in the literature. This was most important to my research because without forming these “themes,” none of the individual ideas focused on in each of my articles would have flowed together into ideas that answered and supported my research question. This is definitely a task I had never been asked to do before in any other writing course, and although it took a lot of time and effort, it formed better research in the end.
These skills that I have learned in this course greatly assisted me in my research in this class as well as in my future classes, being a psychology major. Although I have never written a research paper as extensive as the one I have written in this class, many of the skills I have learned this semester I consider valuable and hope that everyone has an opportunity to learn many of these skills as they would contribute to anybody’s learning in a way that other basic writing classes cannot.
Reflections on Students’ Voices
It is clear that these students and others not accounted for here never had to do actual primary research before; their experience in this class was a novel one. These students claim they were able to develop a number of skills as they became deeply engaged in their own research projects. McAfoose and Zilavy, for example, talked about how they developed their research skills for exploring, reading, understanding, and analyzing the literature they consulted. What McAfoose and Zilavy reported in their reflections here corresponds to one of the benefits synthesized in Buddie and Collins’ (2009) article and reinforces what students mentioned in their response to Lopatto’s (2010) survey, which is that class-based research allows more time to develop such skills. In her reflection, Zilavy gave an example of the activities that helped her improve her understanding of the literature and make use of published literature in order to build and support an argument. In one of her response papers during the second stage, she had to create a dialogue between her resources.
In addition to these research skills, Moulden and Zilavy talked about overcoming the challenge of distributing a survey among employers and employees, and the problem with the lack of published research on their research topics reflects an increase in students’ problem solving skills. Such increases, I believe, may not have been possible without students being immersed in projects they took responsibility and ownership of. In his analysis of students’ responses to his survey, Lopatto (2006) mentioned that students become more responsible for their learning because they study their social and cultural life. Lopatto concluded that doing research also empowers students as they learn new skills like problem solving skills, a conclusion supported by Moulden and Zilavy’s experiences.
The three students talked about how their experience in doing their own research would positively impact their future studies and careers and was likely to be an asset in future courses or at any point where they need to conduct research to succeed at a task. Students’ statements reflect a gain in their self-confidence, a personal skill that was reported as a benefit from undergraduate research by both Lopatto (2006) and Wolfgram (2012). Moreover, Moulden brought to the surface a new benefit of how her research project helped her make connections with possible employers who may help her later in her career.
Although these improvements in the three students’ learning, research, and personal skills support and confirm those benefits reported earlier in published scholarship on undergraduate research, there is a substantial difference here: benefits of this study are from an English composition class, representing the humanities discipline, while most benefits reported earlier came from the sciences. However, I refrain from making any solid conclusions based on my limited-scale experience. I believe the benefits students reported in their reflections may be used as building blocks to expand scholarship on undergraduate research in the humanities.
These were some of my students’ reflections on their experience as first-time researchers in this English composition class. When I first asked them to share their opinions about the course for this article, I stressed the fact that I wanted their opinions and experiences as researchers and what benefits they thought they might have gained in the course. I made it clear that their contributions were by no means about me or my role in their endeavors. I wanted their voices to be loud and clear. My goal was to get other instructors in the humanities, particularly in the English composition classes, to incorporate more inquiry-based learning projects in their classes. The composition class can be a scaffolding environment where undergraduates learn about and engage in their own research projects, gaining all the benefits reported from research in the sciences. Students produced original knowledge and developed many skills as they were mentored by me in a class-based-research humanities course. As Grobman (2008) asserted, my role as a teacher was restricted to instruction, mentoring, and guidance without having to collaborate with any student on any project. Students successfully conducted their independent research projects.
It is significant to highlight here that class-based research in English composition classes has the potential to meet the three features of undergraduate research I mentioned in the first part of this article: students’ original work, students’ benefit from research, and mentoring from a faculty. The description of my course and students’ voices are not meant to represent a huge discipline like the humanities. Instead, my hope is that this course and these voices stimulate more empirical, large-scale research in order to evaluate benefits humanities students may gain in research-based classes. Future research on classed-based learning will hopefully create a taxonomy of benefits on how class-based learning affects research in the. Such research would mirror that which is already completed in the sciences, such as Buddie and Collins (2011) and Lopatto (2006, 2010).
Another direction for future research could be about the role of research textbooks used in undergraduate classes in fossilizing the instruction of research in our institutions. It would be quite interesting to see the impact of these books on teaching research writing classes in a more theoretical rather than an empirical way.
A third possibility for research springs from an observation I made throughout this course. There was no single case of plagiarism at any stage in this course. Based on this small number of students in a single class, it is premature to draw links between student engagement in original research projects and the absence of plagiarism. However, the idea of how student ownership over research projects affects student plagiarism is worth further analysis.
In this article we argued that the English composition class (a humanities class) introduced undergraduate students to meaningful research experiences early in their academic lives. In order for English composition classes and other humanities courses to enact this model of class-based research, I second Healey’s (2005) and Grobman’s (2008) arguments that humanities faculty need to embrace two levels of change: classroom change and institutional change. At the classroom level, teachers can reconsider their understanding and practice of research paper writing and can revolutionize their instruction in a way that moves away from the basics of formatting and documentation. Embracing these considerations should give students more space to incorporate actual research in their classes and to encourage students to get involved in research. At the institution level, faculty should initiate and propose curricular changes that make research a requirement in many humanities courses.
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Buddie, A. M., & Collins, C. L. (2011). Faculty perceptions of undergraduate research. Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring, 1(1). Retrieved from http://blogs.elon.edu/purm/faculty-perceptions-of-undergraduate-research-purm-1-1/
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