Hearing Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the College Writing Classroom

By Barbara M. Sitko; Ann M. Penrose | Go to book overview

6
The Library Revisited: Exploring Students' Research Processes

JENNIE NELSON

Nothing is more scandalous in schools and colleges than what we call "writing a research paper."

( Ken Macrorie in Olson, 1986, p. 130)

I don't know why I can never bring myself to write research papers until the last minute; it's not a difficult thing to do-in fact, it's rather easy. Maybe it's because it's boring. . . . I can never keep a good train of thought because it's not coming from me or my thoughts; it's coming from some book and all I'm doing is regurgitating information that the teacher already knows.

( Ann, a college freshman, in Nelson & Hayes, 1988, p. 10)

In spite of teachers' misgivings and students' complaints, the research paper remains one of the most common assignments in undergraduate college writing programs across the country ( Ford & Perry, 1982). In addition, much of the writing that students are expected to produce in courses across the curriculum requires them to locate and use research material ( Bridgeman & Carlson, 1985). Most writing teachers would agree that successful writers must be able to gather, interpret, integrate, and acknowledge material from a variety of sources, but many teachers are disappointed in their students' responses to research paper assignments and disillusioned about their abilities to teach students these critical processes. Surprisingly, in spite of the important role that research plays in academic writing, researchers have only begun to examine how students approach the process of researching a topic for writing ( Stotsky, 1990).

In two valuable exploratory studies, Kuhlthau ( 1983, 1988) used questionnaires, interviews, and journals to examine how advanced high school and college students defined and directed their own searches for information to be used in writing. She found that these students moved through a series of six overlapping stages during the search process, which included developing a personal need for the search, selecting a topic, exploring available sources, developing a focus for the paper, collecting relevant material, and preparing the material for presentation. Most important, students moved through these stages before they actually began writing drafts of their papers. This means

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