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Teaching Students to Write About Research

by Betsy Gilliland |

“Research” papers are a common assignment in academic writing classes. Students are asked to find information, usually from published sources, to back up an argument. The focus may be on using evidence to support claims, on quotation and paraphrasing, or on using a particular citation system. While some students enjoy learning more about a topic they find interesting, most see the process as just another tedious requirement. This latter group may then leave their writing class thinking that research writing is another way of displaying to a teacher information that the teacher (and everyone else in the world) already knows. In this blog post, I want to disrupt that perspective and make a case for teaching research writing that engages students in a process more closely aligned with the research that scholars and journalists (among other professionals) do in the real world.

What’s Wrong With How We’ve Traditionally Taught About Research Writing?

I have observed high school classes that teach students to do research by asking them to write a thesis statement making a claim about a hot topic, followed by an internet search to find websites that can be quoted to support the writer’s claim. This is the exact opposite of how real-world research is conducted. With this approach, the student writers are expected to already know enough about their topic to take a stand on the issue, whereas in the real world, we do research because we don’t yet know enough about the topic to take a stand.

Real-world research starts with genuine questions that the writer then tries to answer by reading widely, collecting data, talking to people, and doing other forms of investigation. When school research writing starts with a thesis statement, students often draw on what they already know about the topic — learned from pop culture, their friends, and other easily accessible sources — and they don’t explore other perspectives on the topic. Even if such an assignment requires writers to address counter arguments, these may be gleaned from sources that agree with the student writer’s existing perspective.

What Should We Mean by “Research”?

To prepare students for the future (high school, college, and beyond), we should instead be teaching them to see research as an inquiry into the unknown, seeking answers to questions they haven’t yet answered and looking widely for evidence that helps them understand a phenomenon and decide where they stand on an issue. Real-world research requires going beyond the familiar and known; sometimes it means searching the internet or books, but quite often, it also means collecting some sort of data from other people. Once writers have collected data, they analyze it to identify patterns and discrepancies, and then they interpret what those patterns mean in response to the questions they asked. Sometimes, the answers confirm what the writer thought the answer would be, but sometimes the answers contradict expectations, and then the writer must grapple with why that is the case.

How Can We Teach Real-World Research Writing in a Language Learning Class?

Here I draw extensively on ideas from John C. Bean and Dan Melzer’s excellent book Engaging Ideas, which is written for college professors but nevertheless offers a wide range of activities that teachers at all levels can use to integrate literacy and critical thinking into their teaching. Bean and Melzer suggest that the first step in teaching real-world research is to help students learn what research writing is called in different disciplines — that is, in academia, it is not called a “paper” or “essay” but rather may be presented in genres such as funding proposals, scientific articles, or technical reports. Outside of academia, research may be reported in newspaper articles, business memos, or management plans, among other genres as well. The focus, as I noted above, is on inquiry into questions to which the writer does not yet have answers, and which cannot be answered through a simple internet search.

Using Sources

Students who are accustomed to turning directly to the internet to find answers may further benefit from learning about the different ways sources are used in the process of research. Bean and Melzer recommend Bizup’s (2008) mnemonic BEAM for explaining the types of sources used in academic research:

Background Sources

Noncontroversial information that helps the writer understand the context

Exhibits or Evidence

Data, documents, and other sources analyzed to identify patterns and answer questions

Argument Sources

Published, usually scholarly, work that represents the various perspectives on an issue

Method or Theory Sources

Sources that describe the research methods and/or theories the research uses

Depending on the students’ program and their language proficiency, they may rely primarily on background sources and exhibits in their research, or they may be ready to explore the differing perspectives held by professionals on their topic as well as the methods and theories that have been used previously to investigate related topics. At a minimum, however, real-world research should engage students in understanding what has been said before about their topic (the background) so they can make their own research explore new ideas.

Project-Based Language Learning

Even beginning proficiency and younger learners can engage in real-world data collection to answer their research questions. This process may take the form of a social science–like project, where students design surveys or observe people doing an activity, or it may be more like the natural sciences, where they design an experiment and record the results. It could also be a literary analysis focused on finding evidence in one or more texts. For a more extended research study, consider project-based language learning, where the class collaborates to dig more deeply into a relevant phenomenon. Older and more proficient learners can do all these things as well, often with less scaffolding and more access to experts in their research areas and academic publications.

Sharing the Findings

As in project-based language learning, other forms of research are also well suited to being made public, so the students can share their findings with a chosen audience. Younger learners may create posters to display their research findings for their school community, older learners may design and deliver PowerPoint presentations for their families, and college students may create multimodal websites so that the general public can benefit from their findings.

Research Writing and AI

In this era of fear that students will simply ask ChatGPT to write their assignments, asking them to do real-world research can be a valuable means of bypassing AI. No machine learning algorithm can generate the findings that a student could gather going out to talk with members of their community. Teaching research as a process further monitors students’ work; you can ask them to submit their research questions and pieces of their texts along the way. This is not to say that you should prohibit use of AI; as I wrote in my previous blog post, multilingual writers can make productive use of machine translation to support their learning to write.

In Closing

I hope this post has illustrated how real-world research writing differs from traditional school “research” papers, as well as how possible it is for learners at all ages and proficiency levels to engage in some form of real-world, question-driven research.

This is also my final regular post for the TESOL Blog. I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity over the last five years to share my thoughts on teaching writing with this community. Thank you for reading, and please let me know what you think!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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