Posts tagged research databases

Forthright Thoughts about My Students Writing Assignments

I gave my Academic Reading and Writing students a 15 point quiz last week knowing full well that those who had done their discursive essay assignment for me would probably do well on the quiz.  I got some very forthright answers which were quite revealing to me about what is REALLY going on in my classroom.


First of all, in our classes we have a wide range of abilities and talent for writing with our Kazakhstani students.  One student wrote: “Firstly, very difficult it’s this subject in general.  For me difficult part its essay, because I can’t write in Russian, here we must write in English.  And I couldn’t understand some rules because I miss some lessons, but it’s my problem.”    Yes, this fellow missed the first six lessons and must have known the cutoff to show up for my class just in a knick of time otherwise he would have gone the way of “administrative withdrawal.”  So we either have lazy students or those who enter our university without any writing strengths at all.  The onus should NOT be put on us as teachers to catch them up in only ONE 16 week writing and reading course!!!  Our classes meet 150 minutes a week or in other words, two hours a week if they show up late to class, which they usually do.


On the other hand, I have very good students who have been to the States or elsewhere and have been exposed to more writing in English. Somehow they were able to fill out the application for exchange programs and get letters of recommendation from their English teachers.  They are the ones who are confident in writing in Russian and consequently their English skills in writing are also very good.  For the future, I would recommend a kind of “Honors program” as they use in universities in the United States so that we could really work with the top students and not feel so guilty of leaving the likes of the first student behind.  I cannot make up for what he did not get in writing from his Kazakh high school experience or the fact that he was admitted to our university with low scores in the writing test.


Next, we are expected to cover just two essays (discursive and problem/solution) with our dear Kazakh students exhibiting all levels in the same classroom, high, middle and low.  The two essays we cover in just ONE semester are very sophisticated forms of writing even for native speakers of English.  Discursive essays alone require the students to use critical thinking skills by finding pros and cons of an argument.  However, on top of that we are expecting them to find journal articles to buttress their points.  Their reading comprehension levels in some cases are very low, in other cases, they have trouble finding relevant journal articles because they lack the vocabulary to use synonyms that would yield better hits with searching on the research databases.  Keywords are the key.


Not only the above, we want our students to understand from what they read in the textbook that in-text citations are important but with the APA formatting that is difficult as well.  Once I gave my students an example from my masters level students, they were able to produce for me what I wanted with their discursive essay assignment. Otherwise, my students had no clue as to what I expected when I told them to use quotes around what an author writes and insert that into their discursive essay.  An example of their confusion came through in the 15 point quiz I gave them, “It takes a lot of time to find the quotes of authors, which will be parallel or be the same with your statements arguments.” What do the students do?  They zero in on the actual quotes from the articles they are reading and then use THOSE quotes and that is why their Works Cited page looks so funny. That is how complicated it gets, I have used my nonverbal straightjacket example to try to get my point across about what is happening in this one semester reading and writing course.  I would not want to write this kind of essay with all the rules we set down for these novice and inexperienced students, especially since it is in their second or third language.


Finally, after the mid-semester break I will indeed use this same 15 point quiz format to see if my students really understand about in-text citations, etc. That alone is confusing enough when doing it properly with APA formatting style. As if we haven’t had enough to throw at them the first 8-9 weeks of the semester, I will move into Title page, running head and the Works Cited page when I introduce the Problem-Solution essay for the final 6-7 weeks of our semester.  Of course, I will keep working on their outlines and thesis statements.  Always a stumper, even for your average American students in composition courses, thesis statements!!!  I hate to think that we will release these Kazakh students to the real world of academia and they will think that all thesis statements will look like the one we drilled into them concerning discursive essays.


In conclusion, our students NEED examples of the brand of discursive essay we are requiring to look at, a kind of “security blanket.”  For our mid-term writing exam we are only expecting them to write or type a discursive essay in 250-500 words in 50 minutes.  We are asking a LOT of some of our Kazakhstani students.  Our mid-term break or otherwise termed “Reading Week” (i.e. break from our teaching responsibilities) will not come soon enough. 


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My Kazakhstani Students’ Difficulties in Writing Academic Essays

Question:  What are the most difficult parts of writing an academic paper for this class?  Why?


The hardest part, as always, is the start, the first step.  It is very important to come up with a good thesis statement that is why it is so hard.  But after you’ve done this, the writing of the article itself is not that difficult.  Because by thesis statement, you’ve already structured your essay.  You just need to explain your arguments.

The next difficult step is to find articles which would support your opinion and choose quotes from them in order to make in-text citations.  That’s because you need to look through so many articles, decide what words to use and how to put everything together.

Also, the conclusion part is very important, so you need to spend time on it.  In order to make the final sentences sound convincing.


I like writing and compositions, but here we need to write academic writing.  So we must look up for academic articles from research databases; sometimes it tends to be problem with keywords.  Then if you find them, you need to read all of them.  You face new words or terms that you’ve never seen or heard before and need to work on them.

And other details like “in-text citations” and APA style, etc.

Anyway, I learn, practice and do my best.


APA style, because for small mistakes you lose points ;-(  APA style is very difficult!

To find article, because we sometimes use wrong keywords.  To begin writing essay, I always have this problem because sometimes it is difficult to write thesis statement without Thesis Statement Builder.


It was somehow difficult to understand how to write essay (where to put in-text citations, how to put them)  Also, I was confused when dealing with discursive essay before you sent an e-mail with an example.  All in all, the difficulties were with organizing the paper.  But now I think I get it!


First, finding articles.  It takes a lot of time to find a proper article with information you need, you are looking for.

Second, reading and combining the information.  You have to work a lot to understand those articles, make an outline and combining the information.  You have to change the author’s words by using synonyms.  Sometimes difficult to find articles that support your ideas.

But in general, if you have time, and you know how to organize the essay, it is not so difficult to write it.


The thesis statement is the most difficult part.  But using the “Thesis Statement Builder” it is much better and easier.  Sometimes there are topics like “smoking” or “using computers” which have more cons than pros.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to find the appropriate article…sometimes the articles are too long and there are other graphs and tables which confuse the reader.  But on the whole, it’s not so difficult.  The most important is to know what you are writing about and to clarify all pros and cons to make your essay clear and easy to understand.


From the research sites like Ebscohost, we can find a lot of different types of information with different size and volume.  So, sometimes when we want exact information for our topic, I feel confused because most of the articles go in the wrong way. (i.e. you start looking at articles for early human development but the research site gives you so many articles that at the end you choice one of them.  But this article will be about today’s techno world affect on a person’s life!  Where is the word for “early human development?”


The most difficult part for me is that we have too much assignments for such a short time.  Doing this type of assignments really takes a lot of time, I mean: searching for an article, finding which you really like, writing review.  It would be much easier if we had more time to do this.

Also, I think that it would be much better if we had an opportunity to choose topics ourselves, I know that is almost impossible, but still it will involve students, because they will choose what they are interested in.  Or maybe it is possible to give us a list of topics, so we can choose one of them.




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My “Soap Box” about Teaching Research Papers!


The mournful wail of a Kazakh student living in England grabbed my heart the other day.  I was talking on the phone to this student, (let’s call him Zed) who was under great pressure to accomplish a major economics paper of 48 pages for his “dissertation” for a bachelors degree.  He wailed, “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  I’m not sure which university Zed was attending in London, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that Zed was sent abroad ill equipped to accomplish what was expected in his economics department. 

Obviously, Zed hadn’t plagiarized much after looking over the text where all the articles were missing.  Zed also kept mixing up the irregular verbs of “lead” when he meant “led” in the past tense or writing “felt” when he meant “fell.”  Zed also used personal pronouns of “I” or “we” and used contractions such as “can’t” and “let’s.”  All considered errors if writing a major research paper for his British profs, especially if this is to be considered his “dissertation.”  I still can’t get over that phrase but that is what Zed kept calling it.  The title of his paper was: “Discuss the factors behind the 1992-1996 recession in Russia.”  An interesting enough topic to me since it could have parallels to what happened in Kazakhstan once the former Soviet Union fell apart.  The following is his 98 word abstract which I helped clean up:

“Currently the world community has met yet again the problem of crisis when some countries of the former Soviet Union started to experience the first steps of recession. This paper will specifically consider the past experience of Russia. When the post-Soviet republic was dismantled from the Soviet Union, it implemented reforms to move from planned economy to market economy.  However, that implementation brought the country to deep recession during a period of  6-7 years (from 1992-1996). Reasons and consequences of Russia’s recession are discussed in the paper along with the vision of political and economic processes being analyzed.”

The main problem with Zed’s text was that he did not use any in-text citations but footnotes instead.  I asked Zed over our crackling cell phones what formatting style he was using, he claimed he didn’t know.  I tried to see if his footnotes of sources matched what was in his bibliography, in some cases they did not.  The Bibliography often did not have authors’ names or if it did, they were not even alphabetized properly.  Zed had numbers next to each source up to 70 citations.  Remarkable and the bibliography had the appearance of being thorough research.  However, out of curiosity, I asked my teaching colleagues the next day about this numbering and they said in the Soviet period it was considered correct to number your sources and if you had at least 50 of them, then you were fulfilling the research requirements.  Back in those Soviet days, that meant books and not just short journal articles or Internet sources.

Another thing that was notable about Zed’s references was that he was using many Internet sources without showing authors names, where it was retrieved from and when he retrieved it.  When teaching my own composition students, I work around that problem by not allowing the use of ANY Internet sources especially since there is not usually an author’s name attached to it.  Too much junk science is on the Internet.  That is why I insist my composition students learn how to access the electronic research databases. 

If only our dear students knew that all the work has already been done for them to access the thousands of journal articles that their university has paid for through research databases such as EBSCOhost, ProQuest and J-Stor.  In some cases, someone has taken the time to scan every page, just the way it looks in the actual journal that was published on a specific date, in a particular place.  True scholarship acknowledges author, time, name of article, name of journal and page numbers.  Internet sources at the bottom of the page, such as , just doesn’t quite do it for me.  I didn’t check to see if the nine or so URL links of Zed’s were accessible to me since I had the electronic version of it.  I was too busy straightening out his grammar problems of articles, personal pronouns and irregular verbs.  To Zed’s credit, he had used his spell checker, because there were very few spelling errors until the last several pages of his paper.

One last thing that was discouraging about Zed’s economics research paper was the use of graphs and tables, he did not make reference to them in his text except to say “the table below.”  I cautioned Zed that he must be specific by writing in the text “Table 6” or “Figure 4.”  Besides that, I’m not sure where he got his material except cutting and pasting from the Internet.  These graphs and tables were obviously not his own work but he did not “fess up” where he got this material that was supposed to buttress his points he was making throughout his paper.

I felt sorry for Zed and the fact that he probably had several teachers in London who had marked up with red ink his earlier shorter, written assignments until they bled.  His English teachers have probably already written him off as “unteachable” when it comes to writing.  Admittedly, for this Kazakh student, English is his second or third language besides knowing Russian (he used about seven Russian sources in his paper but did not translate them in his footnotes).  I would strongly differ with Zed’s teachers that he is not able to learn the proper way to write a research paper, it just takes time and patience.  Zed and other Kazakh students like him, should not be beaten down for not knowing how to write in English, they should be encouraged.

I believe strongly that if the composition students are taken through the myriad of steps on how to access information and if they have an insatiable curiosity about their subject, it will seem like a wonderful and exciting project to them.  Just going through the motions and trying to fulfill the superficial “regulations” of having a thesis statement or topic sentences throughout the paper with proper citation format will make the students HATE writing a research paper.  I will not forget for a long time the sad voice in England who claimed “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  It seems my life mission is to change students’ voices into a happy “I’m so excited with what I found, I want to SHARE it with you!!”

As a composition teacher, I want to read good papers instead of seeing it as a task of drudgery.  I always maintain that if you are bored at teaching something, the students are bored at listening to you. If you are not enjoying teaching research papers, the students will not enjoy it either.  As teachers, we need to find out what painful steps we are expecting of our students by doing the assignment first ourselves, rather than making them do all the work.  However, if we allow plagiarized papers to come at us as the end result, we have also not done our job as teachers.  The students will go into their other classes at university or study abroad and not able to do the papers expected of them in their other course work.  Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now.






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