Once a topic is clear, it is important to make sure the title is congruent with the topic it. In well-designed papers,
topic, title, and research question(s) fit together smoothly. In many student papers, however,
some of these elements mismatch.
Each paper should address at least one research question. Although some academic essays do not have explicit research questions,
academic reports often do. I believe that research questions provide a useful focus for writers: they are rhetorical devices to
increase the likelihood that a paper will address specified issues.
Research questions should be closely related to the paper topic. Many students have is coming up with sufficiently precise questions which are answerable. Some questions involving matters of personal preference may be hard to answer in any academic fashion. To give students a better idea of what sort of questions are appropriate for academic papers and which aren't, I ask them to complete the worksheet on
After students come up with tentative research questions, I ask them to consider how those can be answered.
Are there sufficient library resources to answer the questions that are raised? If they are doing a quantitative study,
it is also important to make sure the survey questions will provide enough information to adequately address the research themes.
I require students to have at least three information sources for each research question. Students seldom realize how profoundly
information sources influence research outcomes.
Since EFL students tend to rely heavily on native language resources, I insist that at least one-third of the reference sources be in English.
6. Working hypothesis formulation
A working hypothesis should provide a tentative answer to the research question(s) raised in a paper. For example, if the research question is,
"How have convenience stores influenced Japanese shopping patterns?" a working hypothesis might be, "They have had a significant impact on
Japanese shopping patterns."
It is not necessary, and often not desirable, to state working hypotheses explicitly at the onset of a paper. However, it does provide a useful
focus while doing research. Moreover, in the final section of most academic reports, the working hypothesis (or a revised version thereof) is expounded
clearly. In fact, working hypotheses (or subsequent revisions thereof) often evolve into concluding statements.
|Myth: A working hypothesis compromises objectivity. To avoid bias, it is best to work without any hypothesis.
One thing to understand is that a working hypothesis is a tentative conjecture - not a fixed conclusion. In the course of researching a topic, it
is quite acceptable to revise a working hypothesis. Indeed, that is a valuable indicator new ideas are emerging or discoveries are being made.
7. Conducting research
At this stage students should be reading materials to help them answer their research question(s). Materials might consist of books, journal articles, newspaper articles, live interviews, online information, or original data.
Since more and more students have a tendency of over-rely on materials from the World Wide Web, I insist that half of their materials come from non-digital sources. The reason for this is that web pages change frequently and often lack the veracity of printed sources.
A point to emphasize is the need to keep clear notes on what is read so it can be incorporated into a paper appropriately. Students who don't keep appropriate notes tend to be more prone to plagiarism.
|Myth: It doesn't matter where information comes from.
To increase the likelihood that students will cite sources correctly, I
acquaint them with the APA Style Guide (Corio & Sokolik, 1997) and show them papers where information is not cited correctly, then ask them to revise it.
8. Revising (3) - (7) as needed
As Foster (1999) notes, the process of writing needn't be unilinear; it is a multilinear proposition involving many elements.
Myth: Reevaluating research components is a waste of time – just move forward and do the best you can!
Mid-way through the course I ask students to take a look at their topic, research question(s), methods of investigation, and working hypothesis and –
in light of the research material they have read so far – see if anything needs revision. Quite often, at least one element of the study needs to
change. At this point the key issue is congruence: making sure the various elements of a paper fit together smoothly.
9. Producing draft(s)
It is important students produce successive drafts on schedule. Most think they can fudge deadlines and hand in drafts late. Writing instructors need to
stress the importance of advance planning and make deadlines clear. Some penalize late papers. Others simply refuse to accept any papers that are late.
I do not punish late papers in terms of grading, but do remind students that there will be less time for subsequent revisions. Novice writers often fail
to realize how revision is an integral part of the writing process.
|Myth: It is OK to submit a paper's first draft just before the final version is due.
Before students submit drafts, I ask them to use their computer spelling and grammar checkers to catch low-level errors. Since some do not know how to
do this (or many other functions that their computers are capable of), it is often necessary to teach basic computer literacy concepts in class.
A concept to emphasize at this point is backing up files. Invariably, one or two students in each class fail to back up their information properly
and lose all data. To reduce the risk of total data loss, I ask students to print out their papers periodically in addition to backing up their files.
Many EFL students need to realize that most academic papers need to go through a series of revisions. I therefore tell my students to expect 3-5
revisions of their papers.
||Myth: Once a paper is written, it is done.
Tagg (2000) has pointed out how three processes are involved in revision: (1) accretion, (2) tuning, and (3) restructuring. Whereas accretion consists
of adding new information and tuning consists of making slight editorial changes to improve a paper's quality, restructuring involves reconceptualizing
information and/or making fundamental shifts in the structure of a composition. Whereas most student writers tend to focus on the first two processes
while revising, it is the third process that results in intellectually stimulating and deeper essays. EFL students in particular have a hard time
restructuring information since it involves focusing on macroscopic level ideas rather than sentence or paragraph level elements. To help student
writers restructure their ideas, I believe the outlining and idea mapping procedures expounded by Buzan (1974) are of value.
As McCrimmon (1950: 3-4), Li (2000), and Snow (1996: 177) point out, most students write best when they have a clear purpose and audience.
In the final lesson of my class, students present their research orally and receive peer feedback.
|Myth: To present a paper, all you need to do is read it.
Many EFL students don't seem to know how to present academic papers. Typically, most are apt to read sections of their paper in a drab,
monotone voice. To remedy this, I devote part of lesson 13 and 14 to oral presentation skills and cover the points mentioned in Table 5.
Table 5. Hints for effective oral presentations.
12. Feedback and future research
- Content – Make sure the information is closely related to the topic and that it is accurate and understandable.
- Organization – Organize your presentation clearly so there is an interesting opening, some distinct main points, and a clear conclusion.
- Voice tone/speed – Speak with a loud, clear voice and vary your delivery speed. Avoid rushing or long silences.
- Eye contact – Keep frequent eye contact and avoid reading from a paper.
- Visual aids – Use clear, simple visual aids to underscore key points.
- Practice – Rehearse your presentation once or twice times before giving it. Practice is essential.
After each oral presentation, I ask students to offer anonymous feedback in the language of their choice. On the feedback sheet, I ask listeners to mention these four points: (i) at least one thing they liked, (ii) at least one think they felt could be improved, (iii) at least one question which arose from the presentation, and (iv) at least one topic they would like to see a future paper on.
In this way, the final step of the academic writing cycle outlined in Figure 1 connects to the first step: ideas for new papers come out as students report on previous research. As soon as writers finish one paper, they should receive fresh ideas for the next.
To give a concrete idea of how these steps can be implemented in a one-semester academic writing/research methods course, please refer to Table 6.