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Sample Projects for Student Success in Interdisciplinary Research

Elizabeth Adams

Director, Liberal Studies Program
CSU Northridge


Many students entering four-year universities lack basic research skills, a problem exacerbated by the Internet, where “Googling” approximates thorough investigation. Because they are ill-equipped to perform real research and are resistant to using traditional resources, a project encouraging students to develop research and critical thinking skills seems crucial to ensuring their future academic success. This study addresses one attempt to provide a research model for students in an interdisciplinary course.

The CSUN liberal studies program developed a junior level Gateway course several years ago to provide students entering upper division coursework with a touchstone for past and future subject matter work in the major, the largest at the university. The course design emphasizes the subject matter content areas in the multiple subject teacher preparation program. The students in the course plan to teach elementary school. The Gateway course is taught by faculty from across the campus with representation from disciplines as varied as mathematics, English, theater, and anthropology. Twenty sections of the course are offered each year to approximately 500 students.

Providing a solid grounding in research skills and knowledge that students can apply to other courses in the program has been our aim since the inception of the course. We’ve taken a variety of approaches throughout the years, and the feedback we consistently hear from faculty is that students struggle most with the research paper component. The information we have collected from students bears this out. Some students have found the assignment too remedial, others have struggled with choosing appropriate topics, and a surprising number have failed to use the university library despite our tours of its facilities and tireless promotion of its resources.

Because the research paper proved such a bugaboo in the class, we decided to take a different approach in a few sections. The California Content Standards are designed by the State Board of Education “to encourage the highest achievement of every student, by defining the knowledge, concepts, and skills that students should acquire at each grade level.” Two colleagues and I developed topics from the Standards for grades K-6 to assign as subjects for student research papers, choosing at least one published source (a refereed journal article) and one reliable Web source to get the students started. We designed a list of the standards and the topics Next we developed student learning outcomes, as well as a rubric that could be used to grade and assess student learning. We also developed a sample project.

In creating a sample project, I wanted to go through all the steps that a student would. We allow students to choose their own subject matter from the California Content Standards, and most select areas that they feel some affinity for. Since I wanted to work from an undergraduate perspective rather than from a doctoral-level understanding of my subject, I avoided topics closely related to my academic fields: literature, folklore, and anthropology. I chose a history standard dealing with aspects of American history that most students would know little about (Grade 5, Social Science 5.4.4): “Identify the significance and leaders of the First Great Awakening, which marked a shift in religious ideas, practices, and allegiances in the colonial period, the growth of religious toleration, and free exercise of religion.”

Students often ask how to approach the topic of religion in public schools, and here is a standard that explicitly deals with that subject. By completing a sample project and detailing my research steps to demystify the process, I hoped to provide an exemplar for the students’ research projects.

I first completed the work we had already done for the students by finding both a solid Web site and a good article from a refereed journal dealing with the topic. CSUN, like most universities, subscribes to an amazing breadth of electronic periodical databases, and to go beyond the results returned by my query of Academic Search Elite, I also consulted JSTOR, a resource I often recommend to students in need of full-text refereed articles in the social sciences and humanities. Since JSTOR defaults to full-text queries of articles, searches require some effort from the user. For instance, the first article I looked at was a little off topic, but when I skimmed it I discovered that it discussed at length another article that seemed to deal with a disagreement in the scholarship.

Since we require students to take a position in this paper, I was pleased to come across a controversy so soon. The article cited proved to be exactly what I was looking for. It took a strong position on the nature of the First Great Awakening as a movement in early American history while also acknowledging other positions.

After reading a few of the sources cited in the bibliographies of both articles, I conducted a Google search on the topic to find reputable Web pages. The sources I gathered revealed a lively debate on the nature of the movement, and I chose to work with the initial controversy article, an academic Web site dealing with the disagreement among scholars, and an article that discussed the approach of an eighteenth-century minister in South Carolina to his congregants and the politics of the day. By interpreting the minister’s actions, I could propose a thesis without having to investigate primary sources, allowing me to take a stand on the issue without doing original research.

I wrote an annotated bibliography, a thesis statement, and a précis, adding an account of my thought processes throughout the project’s creation.

Students reported that they found the sample helpful, though they had a hard time understanding what a précis was and how to write one. Faculty who taught the sections of the course incorporating this project recommended that students be asked to write the whole paper rather than writing only a précis. One frustrated student had already done just that because she was so bewildered by the précis writing process. Faculty in participating course sections reported that topic selection and annotated bibliographies were on average significantly better than in other sections. Students reported that the sample paper helped them understand the scope and nature of what was being asked of them.

In the second semester of the project, we changed our language and took out the word “précis,” asking instead for introductory and concluding paragraphs. For the next academic year, we have not yet decided whether we will require and provide a sample for a full-length paper. We can safely conclude that providing a model, even one at a more academic level than the students are used to, can be of help to them in their process.

While this approach may not be applicable across all disciplines, it should help in most cases calling for interdisciplinary research skills, a toolkit many students lack. It may be particularly useful where students may otherwise feel out of their depth and, out of panic, resort to plagiarism. Creative research projects work around this growing problem by specifically avoiding the kinds of assignments that essay-for-pay services anticipate. I can highly recommend using the sample project model in such cases. Instructors may need to refine what is presented to students, and the project is likely to require more work than any one assignment generally entails, but the payback is significant. Students learn more—and more creatively. Meanwhile, class time can focus on new topics rather than on assignment deconstruction, and faculty can focus more on individual students.

Posted November 1, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Elizabeth Adams.

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