In 1897 Joseph Conrad wrote: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm--all you demand--and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth from which you have forgotten to ask" (The Nigger of the Narcissus and the Secret Sharer, pg. 107).
The only way professors know if students know anything about something is to have them present their knowledge in writing. If students really know what they say they do, they will be able to write it out in their own words. If students cannot write it out in their own words, they don't know it. It's as simple as the multiplication tables--7 X 6 or 6 X 7 always equals 42; either it does or it doesn't--there is no middle ground or the humming of a few bars to see if it can be faked.
The knowledge and skills students learn by writing research papers are invaluable. Professors usually love to talk about their theses or dissertations because those writings have proven to the entire world their abilities to understand and demonstrate knowledge. Not only have they researched vast areas of knowledge, they organized it, thought critically about it, and presented it honestly and persuasively in their own words.
Writing a research paper is a recursive process (forward and backward), just as thinking about something is usually recursive. There will be times in which serendipity occurs and students will find much more good information than they thought they would find. There will be times when the only steps students believe they are taking are backward. But the process does go forward, especially if it is planned. Students need to develop a plan of research, beginning with the day the assigned paper is due, working backwards to the present. There should never be a day between the assignment and the completed paper in which research, critical thinking, and writing has not taken place. Careful planning and adjustments to the plan is the easiest way to avoid the all-night writing of a bad paper.
One of the purposes of writing a research paper is to develop the skills needed to bring order out of disorder. Since students rarely find information in the order in which it is presented in the paper; they need to make all kinds of decisions and judgments, and solve all kinds of problems. In short, they must think critically. Since professors have specific critical thinking skills and learning objectives in mind, students need to study and question the assignment until they know what is expected of them.
The word research turns off and scares many students; yet, students do research almost every day. They just don't call it research. Comparison buying is research; looking up a phone number is research; calling home to find out when Dad is going to send the next check for room and board is research. These types of research are simple.
Writing a research paper is more complex because of the critical thinking skills required to present information. Before students can present information about anything, they need to know what it is they are writing about. They need to define and describe what their topics are and the topics need to be of a manageable size since the writing will be a lot about a little. In order to define the limits of a topic, students need to define it--exactly what is it? What is it not? What is it like? What is it unlike? For example: What is paint? What is latex paint? What is oil-based paint? How are they different? How are they alike? How is outdoor latex paint different from indoor latex paint? How is outdoor oil-based paint different from indoor oil-based paint? Are they toxic? Which is better? Why?
Describing what something is naturally leads from one question to other questions. As questions are answered, new questions develop. With in this process of discovery, a research question often presents itself. For example:Outdoor latex paint cleans up with water; and is thinned with water. How can paint that uses water in these ways waterproof the outside of a building? Is there a seeming contradiction here? If so, what is it? If not, how does latex paint protect a building from water damage? Is it better or worse or equal to oil-based paint? How?
After students have a research thread or possible threads based upon the questions they asked while describing their topics, they need to begin the process of research. Of course, not just any research from any source will do. Students now need to analyze their sources. As soon as two sources have been looked at and studied, students will have a beginning grasp of whether or not the information is valid, valuable, appropriate, and accepted by the academic community. Continual analytical comparing and contrasting of sources will separate the good from the bad, the old from the new, the truth from the untruth or the half-truth.
Too many students stop researching when they have located the number of sources required for their writing assignment. This leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of problems since information is often repeated in different sources, or is old, or no longer valid. Ten sources for a ten source research paper often leads to a scarcity of information. Students need to write from abundance rather than scarcity. No matter what the topic, students will know much more about it than what they end up writing. Research papers are like icebergs--only ten percent shows on the surface. And if the ninety percent below the water is not there, it will show. The final paper will be weak, repetitive, and full of filler.
While information is being gathered, students need to synthesize what they are learning and discovering. Synthesis is the process of bringing parts and bits of information together to form a coherent whole; for instance, the last data researched may well be presented early in the paper. Coherence means that things are put together, logically, to produce an understandable whole. Point A introduces the topic and defines it in point B, which is then compared and contrasted in points C and D and which introduce the causes and effects of point E, which leads logically and naturally to the conclusion in point F, which leads to the persuasive arguments of points G, H, and I, which persuade the readers to the positions of the student writers.
The researching and writing of research papers makes students experts in the topics they've chosen. As new experts, they are able to evaluate not only data and sources, but also the research papers they've written. They need to see, from their readers' perspectives, if their conclusions are supported by fact and authority. If what they've written is simply a data dump, they know that they have failed to be creative or original. A data dump is a simple listing of facts, often illogically organized--displaying a lack of critical thinking. Students also know when they've done good work. It is only by doing good work that students will be able to persuade readers to agree with their points of view and to take their arguments seriously because their arguments are logical and have both substance and validity.
Finally, students need to interpret what they've researched and written. This requires the highest levels of thinking and is the most rewarding and memorable. The question "so what?" must be answered. The readers need to be led to the same conclusions and interpretations made by the writers. Interpretation is the process of explaining and extrapolating the meanings of research. What are its implications, effects, and solutions? Why does it matter?
By Bernard Selzler, Ed.D.