"Walk-Through" Mini-Research Project

Brief Description: One of the main points in Bean's excellent book Engaging Ideas is that we need to model active learning behaviors for our students through emphasizing specific problems and questions that they can solve. Here is a means to model the skills needed to produce a strong research paper in any discipline -- skills which trained academics often take for granted.

Contributed by John Bean, Seattle University

Perhaps the best way to introduce new majors to research writing in the disciplines is through a walk-through project that the whole class works on together over a period of several days. The teacher develops a scenario for a fictional researcher who poses a research question. The teacher then distributes a packet of primary and secondary materials out of which the mini-research paper will be developed. With all the class using the same documents, the teacher gives short assignments in summarizing, quoting, paraphrasing, and citing material for a variety of contexts and purposes. Many of these can be done as in-class exercises. Here are some examples:

Suppose that as a researcher, you want to summarize the argument on pages 235-236 of the attached article while quoting exactly the two pages highlighted with yellow marker. Write this paragraph beginning with the following sentence: "A contrasting view of the role of labor in postwar Germany comes from ..." Finish the paragraph, properly referencing the article and using attribution.

For the "Findings" section, you have displayed your data as shown on the attached tables, which you call Table 1 and Table 2. Write a prose passage describing these findings verbally and properly referencing both tables.

In each case, the teacher could have students share their paragraphs, comparing different versions and commenting on strengths and weaknesses. The teacher could then present his or her own version as a model. After the class has worked together on the exercises, the students put all the skills together by writing a mini-research paper using the materials already discussed. Depending on its appropriateness to the discipline, the teacher can also use the project to raise theoretical issues about the nature of knowledge in the discipline: to what extent does research uncover and objectively knowable truth? Can researchers, looking at the same data, arrive at different theses? What makes a thesis persuasive? To what extent does research writing reflect the biases of the researcher?
-- John Bean, Engaging Ideas:  The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2001), 213-14.