"In my past English classes, secondary research was the only type of research used. This includes looking up information from books or other sources, and quoting individuals who have knowledge about this specific topic or situation."
Two things are important in Nick's description of his previous research experiences. Not only is he saying that he had never before encountered primary research assignments (which in itself may not be a problem) but he is also saying that, to him, the process of research consists only of visiting the library and finding out what experts had to say about his subject. Like many other students with experience in traditional research paper writing (see Schwelger and Shamoon 1982 and Nelson 1994), Nick considers himself an apprentice with nothing or little to say about his subject. Nick's ideas about the nature and purpose of research are confirmed by another student. Allison wrote in her reflection essay that for her:
"High school was the first time [she] had to use research in essays and projects. It consisted mostly of me searching online for websites that contained information I could use. At times I would use the library and spend hours looking through encyclopedias and other texts. Although I always wrote well, I never enjoyed the process or spent time re writing or improving my papers."It is easy to notice that, like Nick, Allison put an emphasis on collecting and compiling information rather than on the creation of an original researched text.
"In the past I was required to write at least one research essay in every one of my English classes in order to receive credit. First I was assigned a topic, and then I spent the next couple of weeks trying to forget the fact that I had to write a five-page report. A couple of days before the assignment was due I would spend my evenings in the library or on the Internet trying to find information on the aforementioned topic. Then I would put all the information that I had gathered together I some kind of order making sure that I had an accurate bibliography and turned the project into my teacher satisfied that I had at least lived through the experience."
Josh described his research paper writing experiences in a similar way:"For me, when I think back to the research papers I have done, or any paper, I think of going to the library and simply looking up a subject in an encyclopedia."
As evident from the Katie's passage, the topic of the research paper was usually assigned to this student by the teacher. Apparently, those research assignments did not contain a provision for drafting or revising, which allowed the student to write the paper virtually "the night before" it was due. Finally, for Katie, the process of research appears to revolve around information gathering and documenting and not around writing a "new" text. Katie's last statement about being happy for having "lived through the experience" of writing a research paper was also very typical of almost all the students who took part in the study.
Unlike Katie, Josh did not elaborate on how he used the information found in the encyclopedia and how he wrote the paper. However, the fact that he chooses to describe his methods of information gathering rather than his research writing process leads me to believe that, like Katie, this students considers "looking up a subject in an encyclopedia" the essence of research writing.The results of this part of the study generally confirm what many writing teachers know both from empirical studies and from anecdotal evidence: many undergraduate students have negative attitudes towards research writing. Indoctrinated in the methods of library skills in high school and college, students approach every research writing assignment as a chore to survive and not as an opportunity to learn about their subjects and develop original texts. As one student put it, he "looks for information that supports [his] thesis" rather than develop a thesis on the basis on research. Naturally, many of these students take the path of least resistance in their research, consulting the most readily available (although not always the best) sources. With the proliferation of computer technology and the Internet, this kind of "research" has become particularly easy. For example, several students participating in this study have attempted to use the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-ROM which comes standard with many home PC's as a secondary research source. I further discuss the problem of reliability of secondary sources as it relates to this study in the Student Performance on Primary and Secondary Source Research Assignments page.