Undergraduate Research and the Mandate for Writing Assessment

Article excerpt

Each spring, sometime between the wilting of the azaleas and the flowering of the roses, our university sets aside a day for Student Showcase. About one hundred of our best students present the results of their research in a variety of disciplines. This year the topics ranged from "The Poetry of Octavio Paz" to "The Effects of Pre-Shot Basketball Routines." The presentations are the culmination of months of work by students and faculty working closely together in directed research courses. These courses provide an opportunity for students to apply the skills they have been developing throughout their undergraduate experience.

The research papers students write for these courses build on the foundation of writing instruction that begins in the freshman year. All students are required to take an interdisciplinary communications course that includes intensive writing experience as well as attention to oral communication, research strategies, and documentation of sources. Because they know that the first-year composition course: is not simply an obstacle to be overcome but preparation for the most challenging task they will face in the major, students arc encouraged to take this requirement seriously.

The importance of writing in a student's academic development is widely recognized. When Richard Light (2001) surveyed Harvard undergraduates, for example, he found that students were more challenged and more engaged in writing-intensive courses. This single factor far outweighed all other measures, including the way students felt about their professors. The students surveyed also emphasized the importance of directed research experiences: "For many undergraduates, an individually supervised reading or research class is die capstone of their academic work at college. A research paper must be written. Supervision is personal and intense. The student gets to play a major role in shaping a project. These are all great strengths for learning, for engagement, for pleasure."

But despite the importance of writing to student learning, writing instruction is given a low priority at many institutions. Grading writing assignments is an arduous and time-consuming task, and many faculty simply avoid giving such assignments. When major research assignments are given, they are often submitted so late in the course that the students receive no feedback until the term is over and final grades have been averaged. It is not unusual to walk down the halls of a university during final exam week and see stacks of papers in cardboard boxes that are finally ready for students to pick up. Many students never bother to retrieve their work. Those that do often give the papers a cursory glance to see what grade they have received and ignore the comments and corrections made by the teacher.

Going Public

However, when student work becomes public through campus events, like our Student Showcase, faculty become intensely aware of the achievements and the deficiencies of their graduating students. In many cases, departments have revised courses and requirements in the major to strengthen writing and research skills. Introductory writing courses lay a Foundation of generalized writing strategies; specialized writing instruction in the major attends to the discipline-specific concerns. Psychologists do not write like historians, and historians do not write like biologists. The bibliographic resources and the mediods of documentation also vary by discipline. Thus, it is incumbent upon disciplinary faculty to take responsibility for the development of these skills.

Making student writing more public is also a way of acknowledging and rewarding the faculty who invest time m student research projects. "Going public" not only happens through Student Showcase, but through a variety of academic conferences. Sometimes these are disciplinary conferences designed for undergraduates, such as the national Sigma Tau Delta meeting for English majors. …