Date of Award

7-20-2006

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Jeannine M. Fontaine, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Gian S. Pagnucci, Ph.D.

Abstract

College students often perceive the university as alienating; reading and writing impersonal research texts can intensify this sense of disconnect. College professors often feel passion and enthusiasm toward their own research yet find it difficult to create this excitement in their research writing classrooms. This qualitative study explored student and teacher perceptions and instructional approaches in a university research writing course, seeking clues to student engagement. Data collection included six weeks’ observation of four university-level research writing classrooms, where professors employed distinct approaches—a traditional model-based approach with a thematic focus on a social issue, an ethnographic approach based on field experience at a student-selected research site; an inquiry-based approach with student-selected topics incorporating survey and interview methods; and a thematic approach focused on the politics and culture of a developing nation, with an emphasis on common readings. Professor interviews, student interviews, and close analysis of eighteen student research papers resulted in the design of two instruments: an indicator of student engagement based on interview responses, and a list of textual characteristics in research papers intended to describe writer engagement as well. Analysis of these data led to the following findings: students are more engaged when invited to select their own research topics; many students are particularly challenged by reading source materials and building connections between these authors’ ideas and their own, while classroom instruction typically places greater emphasis on locating appropriate sources and drafting the research paper; students compose their research papers to meet teacher expectations, whether explicitly modeled or implied, making engagement difficult to infer from student texts; and, student engagement increases when professors place primary emphasis in grading on content and rhetorical quality, rather than on accuracy of form or documentation style. These findings suggest that alternative approaches to the research paper assignment may increase student engagement, especially when students have autonomy in selecting and developing their research topics.

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