Write Better Papers through Focused Reading and Analysis
As a student, it is almost certain that you know how to quickly find information for your assignments. But the question is: do you know how to find the right type of information needed and, more importantly, do you know how to effectively process it? If your instructor tells you to “demonstrate critical thinking and writing” would you know what you are supposed to do? A recent Chronicle article indicated that college students (primarily freshmen) can find sources; however, they lack an ability to thoroughly analyze the information presented within those sources. I can certainly relate, as I have also found (at the undergraduate and graduate level) that many students find articles and perform what I call a “cite and go” with their paper. They take a couple of quotes from the source, use that as the basis for their analysis, and consider the assignment completed.
Rebecca Moore Howard, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, was the co-principal investigator of the research report cited by the Chronicle. Moore indicated that “habitually grazing texts online may play a role,” because “the new literacies are changing the way we read, and many of us do a lot more skimming than we used to do.” As a result, Moore states that students “are not also learning how to read deeply.”
Is this a product of the Millennial generation? Have students become used to scanning large volumes of information quickly without taking time to fully comprehend the meaning of what’s been read? Christy Price, a psychology professor at Dalton State College, believes that “Millennials have grown up being able to Google anything they want to know, therefore they do not typically value information for information’s sake.” Price reminds instructors that our role has changed and instead of disseminating information, educators need to help you learn how to work with and apply that information.
While the generational question may not be fully answered, I can address the problem of reading too quickly by providing you with a working format to use for your next assignment, which will allow you to interact with your sources, process information, and demonstrate learning.
Understand the Assignment Requirements
While the starting step may seem like I am stating the obvious, this is where many students initially get off track. It is extremely important for the success of your assignment to fully read through the instructions, determine the expectation of the final product, and ask your instructor for clarification if there is anything you are uncertain about (and this is important for every assignment). Often the assignment is aligned with a learning objective, which specifically states the expected outcome. It is also matched to a cognitive function and the key words used will let you know how to proceed. For example, if the objective is to present a new proposal, you know that you will be expected to develop an analysis, synthesize information obtained, and as a result – create something new.
In addition, it is important to develop a start point for your work on an assignment. In my post, A Guide for Effective Academic Writing and Research I talked about establishing your own perspective. As you process the assignment instructions and search for information, consider the development of your voice. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to spark your critical thinking skills:
• What is it that I want to say about this thesis?
• What are my thoughts about the topic after I have read more about it?
• Why is this topic important to me, this assignment, and my course?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with this topic?
Get the Right Sources
I know that the easy solution to finding information for your assignment is to conduct an Internet search – and that’s okay, provided you have found credible sources of information. In my post, Looking for Credible Sources? Try This Approach, I provided a list of questions you can ask as you review a website or article as a means of evaluating an author’s credibility. The more questions on the list that you can answer, the more likely you will want to use this source of information.
• What are the author’s credentials?
• Is the author a subject-matter expert?
• What is the author’s background and overall qualifications?
• Is the author published in any other sources?
• Does the author have any affiliations that may lead to potential bias?
One of the best sources of academic information can be found through online library databases, which are offered by most schools. These databases provide sources such as peer-reviewed articles, which are scholarly publications that have been reviewed by experts in that particular field. In my post, What You Need to Know about Peer Reviewed Articles, I noted that when you write a paper you need credible information that is grounded in research so you can develop an informed perspective about the subject. As a student, you are often expected to do more than report facts. Many assignments will require you to develop your own ideas and reach your own conclusions about a topic. Finding and utilizing peer-reviewed articles will help you meet this goal and lead to well-developed and well thought out written responses.
Closely Read, Take Effective Notes
Now that you have fully read the instructions and collected sources of information, you are finally ready to begin reading the information you’ve acquired. This goes beyond generally skimming the text and instead, you must take the time to process the information to determine its meaning. It’s also referred to as close reading and critical thinking, which includes making observations about facts and details. With close reading, “you may focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole,” and “your aim may be to notice all striking features of the text.” A reading strategy I recommend is SQ3R, which is a structured approach to reading: survey, question, read, recite, and review.
Another effective method of working with the material you have found is to use a note-taking method. This is especially helpful when the information or the general topic may not be that interesting to you, which is one reason why some students struggle to get their assignments completed. In my post, Note-Taking Strategies for Online Students, I indicated that note-taking has been proven to improve reading comprehension and increase retention of the information from 5% (without notes) to 34% (with notes) because it’s an active form of learning. I shared the five common note-taking methods: Cornell, mapping, charting, sentence, and outline. These note-taking strategies will help you work with the information and organize it in an effective manner. They can be used with almost any subject and in any format, including handwritten notes.
Evaluate, Establish Your Perspective
Once you’ve obtained information from your sources, you can use your notes as you formulate your paper or response. Educator Jennifer Wagaman calls this the first level of thought or the evaluation of information, and states that “the evaluation thought process for any lesson is the beginning building blocks for higher level thought,” and the “skills that involve evaluation thinking include deciding, ranking, defending, verifying and critiquing.” At this point, you can take your notes and use them to support the development of your own ideas and thesis. You can use this as your own position or argument statement, which makes up the body of your paper.
In my post, The Great Debate – Developing Online Argumentative Skills, I discussed the use of reasoning skills. When you create an argument you should consider making “concessions, show awareness of other possible arguments, and be sensitive to different perspectives,” and remember that “a reasonable writer will not play on emotion to excess.” A sound argument utilizes logic and reasoning skills rather than emotions to sway the reader’s opinion. Take a position about the subject, determine what you want to say, use your sources to support your statements, and work on crafting a paper or response that meets the required objective for this assignment. Then review what you’ve written and consider if the paper addressed all of the required criteria.
Finish with a Powerful Wrap Up
There are several possible strategies for writing the conclusion of your paper and one of the most powerful techniques I recommend is to synthesize rather than summarize, which is explained as follows: “don't simply repeat things that were in your paper. They have read it. Show them how the points you made and the support and examples you used were not random, but fit together.” If the body of the paper is strong but the conclusion is weak, the reader is left with the feeling or impression that the overall paper was incomplete, simply because that is the last section read. You can make a positive impression by demonstrating that you have worked with information obtained from your sources, analyzed it, processed it, and fully comprehend the meaning of the topic or subject.
The development of a paper or response that demonstrates thoughtful analysis does require an investment of time; however, you are likely to discover that by following the structured process outlined here, you will become more proficient with it. Don’t assume that once you have found information your work is done. That is only a starting point. The real work involves analyzing the information and using it to support your ideas and thesis. As you learn the art of analysis and careful evaluation, you will find your work product becomes much stronger, your grades will improve, and you will also learn more about the assigned topic or subject.
Share your tips for finding and analyzing sources of information via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
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