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Writing Assignments as a Process:
Step by Step Writing
Sachiyo M. Shearman
School of Communication

The very first semester that I taught at East Carolina, I assigned my students a “traditional term paper assignment.”  This classic, formal term paper often goes something like this:

“There will be a term paper due at the end of the semester. The term paper can be on any aspect of the course that interests you, but I have to approve your topic in advance.”  About halfway through the term, students submit proposals for topics – usually stated as a topic are rather than as a research question or tentative thesis.  The instructor either approves the topic or advices that it be narrowed, sometimes giving preliminary advice for bibliographic items. In many cases, no further contact between teacher and student occurs. At the end of the term, the teacher collects and grades the papers. (Bean, 2006, p. 73).
I assigned this term paper to my students in all three of my courses. As you may expect, the result at the end of the semester was disappointing, to say the least.  The end of the semester came with a disastrous result: the mountains of papers that were hastily-written, not-well-thought out, or well organized, and papers that included scarce or improper citations and quotations of research literature.  It was obvious some of the students decided on their topic too quickly.  It seemed as if that they came up with their topic a week before the due date, spent one day doing the literature search on the Internet, then wrote it up one night before the due date and did not have time to re-read it again. (Yes, I am focusing on negatives here.  I am happy to say there were some good papers, but these were not the majority…)

It was not only dispiriting to see these papers at the end of the semester, but I was also at a loss, not knowing what went wrong.  This surely was a wake-up call for me.  Naturally, at first, I thought, what’s wrong with these students?  Then I got myself together and asked myself, what did I do wrong?  What kind of help and structure did they need from me?  What challenges do they face in writing a good term paper?  What can I do to make them want to write their paper well before the final due date? 

  I had to think very hard to answer these questions, since they did get assistance and structure for the paper.  I provided my students (or at least I thought I did) with a decent amount of assistance, instruction, and structure.  For example, I not only explained the details of this term paper assignment at the beginning of the semester, but I also mentioned it occasionally throughout the semester.  About halfway into the semester, when they provided me with their term paper proposals, I asked a few students to share their topics and we discussed those topics in class.  I provided information on different structures for the paper.  I discussed some tips on doing literature search using the library catalog and electronic databases.  I even spent some time talking about APA style, how to reference sources, and proper formatting of citations and quotations.  However, all of these efforts were not demonstrated in their papers to the degree I had intended.  

Now let me fast forward to the present.  I have been teaching here at East Carolina for five years.  Looking back, I was suffering from a syndrome in the very first year that I started to teach. This is a syndrome that many new faculty fresh out of Ph.D. programs are likely to have (so I think, or at least I did). For the six years that I was working on my master’s and doctoral degrees, my entire life seemed to be about reading and writing academic papers.  That may be an exaggeration, since I did have some fun as a graduate student besides taking classes, writing term papers, and assisting professors with teaching and researching.  Yet, most of my time was dedicated to academic readings, writings, and discussions.  Also, it certainly did not help that the only thing that I knew about American college life was a graduate student’s life.  As an international faculty member originally from Japan, earning my BA degree in Japan and coming to the US for my graduate studies, I had never been an undergraduate student myself in the US, and thus lacked that point of reference. 

The symptom of this syndrome was that I viewed many of my undergraduate students who actually wanted to immerse themselves in a course they are taking and get a sense of joy by writing a good term paper.  Naturally, this is not the case for some undergraduate students who were taking my course.  Many of my students faced various challenges in completing their term paper assignment.  So, what challenges did they face?  Most of them needed to be motivated to write a paper.  Undergraduate students these days are overstretched and extremely busy; they are usually not only taking multiple courses and working on various assignments for these courses, but they also engage in various extracurricular activities and work one or two jobs to make money (Nathan, 2005).  They may need to be motivated to write a paper ahead of time, so that they will have enough time to revise and proof-read. Some students may have had a tough time picking a good topic that interests them.  Some of them needed guidance to pick a topic and frame the paper.  Many students do not know exactly what a scholarly source or an academic paper looks like.  They do not know how to properly cite or quote academic literatures. Many of them need guidance on academic style writing and how to properly cite and quote academic resources. Some need help using electronic databases to search for academic sources. 

Besides these motivational and knowledge-based problems, what I saw as a major problem was that most of my students are not looking at their writing assignments as a “process.”   They rather see it as a “one-shot” assignment. The solution that I came up with is the “step-by-step writing approach” to a term paper assignment.  This approach not only helped my students to learn the process of writing, but it also helped me assist students in a very structured way. 

This “step-by-step writing” approach helped my students to see a term paper writing assignment as a process.  This approach gave them different steps to take before completing their assignment, which forced them to work on the research paper throughout the semester.  Students worked on the assignment in stages: 1) they were taught that the writing assignment is a process; 2) they were given the proper steps to complete the process; 3) they were provided with basic structures to follow for each step; 4) I graded and provided feedback for each step that they completed; and then 5) they integrated all the steps at the end of the semester to complete their term paper.  In the following section, I will explain these steps in more details. 

I understand that various instructors teach different kind of writing assignments, but my focus here is on a formal writing assignment such as a research paper.  Formal writing can range from a short paper with micro-themes to a lengthy research paper (Bean, 2005).  I define a formal research paper as “a thesis-governed academic paper with a good argument and organization structure written using an academic writing style (such as an APA)”.   I used this step-by-step paper assignment technique for different types of  research papers including 1) literature review only research paper, 2) research proposal (with proposed methods but no data), and 3) research paper with their own data that they collected for this specific paper.  Naturally, I employ different steps depending on which type of research paper is assigned.  Previously, I have experimented with this idea by using different kinds of steps and different methods of grading, and instructors who may use this approach can change the steps to fit their respective courses.  Below are the steps that I incorporate for each type of research paper. 

 
Sample#1 – Steps for Literature Review Based Research Paper (without method/data)
StepsAssignmentsGrades
Step#1Research Topic and Justification5 points
Step#2Literature Review and Annotated Bibliographies10 points
Step#3Literature Synthesis and Outline5 points
Step#4Literature Review Research Paper15 points


 
Sample#2 – Steps for Research Proposal Paper (with method/without data)
StepsAssignmentsGrades
Step#1Research Topic and Justification5 points
Step#2Literature Search and Annotated Bibliographies5 points
Step#3Methods and Scales5 points
Step#4Research Proposal Paper10 points


 
Sample#3 – Steps for Research Paper (with method and data)
StepsAssignmentsGrades
Step#1Research Question and Justification5 points
Step#2Literature Search and Annotated Bibliographies5 points
Step#3Methods and Scales5 points
Step#4Data Collection and Data Analysis5 points
Step#5Research Paper and Presentation10 points

At first, I explain to my students that writing is a process. I use the example that writing is like a sculpture.  They cannot complete their curving and show what they want to express in one night (as they may try to do their assignment in one day).  The curving process requires some adjusting, viewing different angles, and using different tools at different times.  Though this will not completely prevent them from attempting to do each step of the assignment at once, at least students will understand the reasoning behind why they are asked to complete these steps for this assignment throughout the semester.  

Then, I explain different steps that are required for my students to complete a research paper assignment.  As mentioned earlier, the steps may differ depending on the type of paper assignment and the instructor may want to adjust these required steps to fit to their respective course content.  What works for me is to incorporate the steps directly into my course content.  This comes naturally when I am teaching a research methods course, since this course covers the methods of research, ranging from the definition of research, various research methods (qualitative and quantitative), and methods for data collection and data analysis.  As the emphasis of this course is about the process of conducting research, it was easy for me to create steps for a research paper with data.   

In the following section, let me share the steps that I used when I assigned a research paper with data.  In my research methods course, students are actually encouraged to collect their own unique data set (such as survey data, interview data, or observational data) to use for their paper.  The steps that I had used for assigning a formal research paper include the following: 1) problem statement or research question; 2) literature review and summary or annotated bibliography; 3) proposed methods; 4) locating the data; and 5) final paper with the synthesis of all previous parts. 

The first step for a formal research paper is to create a topic or a problem statement.  Some students come up with their term paper topic with ease, and others have problems with it.  Keyton (2005) explains that research is a process of asking questions and attempting to provide valid answers to the questions.  As I teach communication research methods, students can come up with communication-related research topics by simply reflecting on their daily lives.  Why do I get irritated if I don’t get an email reply after one day from my friend?  Why do I enjoy watching dramas, while my boyfriend prefers watching sports?  Why do I get nervous when I talk in front of students in a big class, but not so much in smaller class?  These questions can yield an interesting research topic regarding our use of media or communication behaviors.  These questions can then be phrased as “receiver perception of new media use,” “exploring the gender difference in the preference of media,” or, “examining impact of a type of audience on a speaker’s communication apprehension.”  I solicit those questions that they might have come upon in their daily lives.  As a simple technique, I had used some sample statements and asked students to fill in the blank with their interests.  Students may start with one variable research question, such as, “What is an X?” and then move to a two variable question such as, “What’s the association between X & Y?”   For instance, I write statements like the following on the white board: “I would like to know more about how people respond to _______” or “I would like to examine the association between _______ and _________.”  These statements are great place to start.  Most students do not have trouble finding a topic of their interest, though they may have trouble framing it as a research question.  Also, having a brainstorming session in class seems to have helped some students. 

In the second step, students are expected to conduct a literature search using the library catalog and electronic databases on the topic that they selected.  The first step forsearching databases is to come up with key words, so I ask students to identify key concepts for their topic and come up with synonyms for their topic.  Using these key terms, they explore research literature.  In this process, I explain different databases, discipline-specific databases, and interdisciplinary databases.  I also spend time discussing different ways of narrowing the search.  There is much to be discussed about academic literature searches, and Rubin, Rubin, and Piele (2005) provide comprehensive information on ways to conduct literature searches in the field of communication.  This resource served well for my course.  Depending on the courses, I have asked students to provide several annotated bibliographies (both descriptive and evaluative annotations) for each key article that they have found.  An annotated bibliography helps students read each academic article in-depth and give them a chance to summarize in their own words and a chance to do a critical reading of it.  Another way to provide a summary for the literature search is to find a discernible pattern in the literature and to provide a synthesis of information.   Reinard (2008) provides various literature review summary strategies including “known to unknown,” “deductive,” “problem-solution,” “chronological,” “inductive,” and “topical.” I share these lists of possible organizational structures for the literature search with my students, so they have some guidance with their own summary of literature that they have found on their respective topics.  

Based on the literature search, students are asked to re-state their problem statement or research question.  Then, students are to come up with the research methods that they would like to use to answer their research question.  If they are doing a literature review paper without data, in this section they would spend more time on the literature search.  If they are doing a literature review paper with data, they are asked to pick one of the three research method options:  survey, interview, or observation.  In each option, students are asked to come up with a detailed method section.  They are asked to describe who the participants of the study will be, where and how these participants will be recruited, what kinds of questions are going to be asked (if survey and interview is used), what will be observed, and what observation criteria will be used (if observation method is selected).  Whichever method they select, they will spend some time coming up with actual details.  As the focus of this paper should be on writing, I do not go into the details of the methods, yet some emphasis is placed on this, especially when a paper assignment is for the research methods courses that I teach.  

They would then conduct the data collection, compile the data, and then attempt to report the result.  In this process, I often have a one-on-one session or a one-on-group meeting to look at the data they have collected for their research paper.  We discuss different ways to interpret data, examine data in relation to their original research question, and possible implications of the data.   

As a final step, students are asked to integrate all of the previous steps that they took to come up with a final paper.  This last step, an integration of all of the previous efforts, is a crucial one.  I encourage students to think of this last step as a “synthesis” or “integration,” and not just the sum of each part that they have completed prior to this stage.   

In the syllabus, I clearly indicate that each step will be graded. Evaluation of each step has proven to be crucial.  This evaluation process helps students to take these preparation stages seriously and work hard on them.  Besides, it is a great occasion for me to provide feedback so that they can easily move on to next step.   

What I am suggesting here is not a drastically new alternative method.  This is rather a traditional research paper assignment that has multiple “steps” as components of learning steps for writing.  After introducing this step-by-step approach for a research paper assignment, the quality of my students’ research papers improved drastically.  They had no choice but to look at this assignment as a “process” rather than “one-shot-paper” assignment that they can tackle overnight.  So, for now, I have answered my previous questions: What kinds of help and structure did they need from me?  What can I do to make them want to write their paper well before the final due date?   It is likely that I will be using this method in the meantime, until I come up with a better alternative method.  

References  

Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging Ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Keyton, J. (2005). Communication Research: Asking questions, finding answers (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.  

Nathan, R. (2005). My Freshman Year: What a professor learned by becoming a student.  Ithaca, NY: Penguin Books. 

Reinard, J. C. (2008). Introduction to Communication Research (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.  

Rubin, R. B., Rubin, A M., & Piele, L. J. (2005).  Communication research: Strategies and sources (6th ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.