Writing teachers have known for a long time that, as a rule, students do not like research writing. However, with the exception of a few studies, such knowledge is largely anecdotal, informal, and unorganized. The few existing studies of student attitudes towards research writing (Schwegler and Shamoon 1982, Nelson 1994) investigate students uneasy relationships with the traditional research paper assignment. The traditional research paper assignment is, without a doubt, the most pervasive form of research writing in college and is assigned in the majority of writing programs. In it, students are typically asked to construct a thesis statement and "defend" in the paper based on research. In recent years, as the traditional research paper came under increasing criticism from composition specialists, more teachers began to assign various new forms of research writing assignments to students. Among these new forms are the research essay, the ethnographic research paper, the I-search paper, and some others. The effects of these new or "alternative" research writing assignments on students and their attitudes towards research writing have not yet been investigated and and this study is an attempt at such investigation. In the study, I pose the following questions:
At Florida State University, as in many other universities, research writing is taught during a second-semester first-year writing course. The course which I describe here was taught completely online with students submitting their writing to the instructor and to their peer group members through e-mail. While investigating the effects of the online format of the class on student writing is not my main focus here, it is perhaps worth pointing out that this new format may have further complicated some students' transition from the traditional research paper genre to the research methods and modes of research writing offered in the course. The course's theme was "Writing Home and Family" and students were to research their families and home communities, combining primary and secondary research methods. It contained four major writing assignments, all of which required students to engage in either primary or secondary research, sometimes in a combination of both.
The assigned texts were The Subject is Research, which I co-edited with Wendy Bishop and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own, by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer. Unlike traditional research paper textbooks which usually focus on primary research methods and insist on the homogeneous research paper, The Subject Is Research introduces students to both secondary and primary research methods and a variety of researched writing genres.
My method in this study was textual analysis of three kinds of student writing. I analyzed reflection essays written by students and submitted as part of their course portfolios. I also used online discussion board postings indicative of the students' attitudes towards research writing and their progress in the course. Finally, I studied the finished papers in an attempt to determine the students' level of success in conducting and writing primary and secondary research.
In general, students' reflection essays and discussion group postings did not display a favorable attitude towards research writing assignment. As I had predicted before the study, most of them had written traditional research papers based on secondary research before. Such students understood reporting of information found in library sources or on the Internet as the main purpose of writing a research paper. Students tended to associate the research process with the feelings of boredom, frustration, and tediousness. The results of these parts of the study are summarized and interpreted on the Students' Pre-existing Attitudes Towards Research Writing page.
A number of students were surprised to learn that interviewing, surveying, and other primary research methods were legitimate in school research papers. Some considered primary research assignments easier than secondary ones while others had the opposite opinion. Proceed to the Primary Research Expectations and Reactions page for a detailed analysis of the findings
The study shows that most students performed primary research tasks with more enthusiasm and interest than secondary ones. When conducting secondary research, however, a large number of students displayed the same "compile information" approach often found in traditional, secondary-research only, research papers. Among other problems many students faced when conducting secondary research were the use of unreliable sources, failure to read secondary sources critically, and so on. Results of these part of the study are further summarized and explained on the Student Performance on Primary and Secondary Research Assignments page.