Enhance signature courses to improve research skills

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Since its inception in 2008, the School of Undergraduate Studies has offered hundreds of signature courses designed to facilitate the transition from high school to college by improving students’ research and writing skills and introducing them to the University’s resources. Last year President William Powers Jr. described the signature course program as “a mandatory rigorous intellectual experience” that, as of the 2010 Undergraduate Catalog, fulfills a compulsory core requirement for every student.

The signature course program’s goals are indisputably commendable, and the courses offer a valuable introduction to campus resources and faculty. However, recent research suggests that the design of the signature course program may fail to significantly improve students’ research abilities. The Citation Project, in a presentation this week at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in St. Louis, Mo., examined source-based student papers from 16 institutions ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities. Researchers found that students across the board do not know how to properly analyze their sources and often “exhibit the same kinds of mistakes at the end of their first-year composition courses as they do at the beginning.”

The authors place some of the blame on standardized testing, which teaches students how to recognize the main idea of a text but not to critically evaluate it, and on “new literacies” created by the Internet, which encourage skimming as opposed to in-depth reading. However, one fundamental problem of research-based courses, say the authors, is that instructors are often unfamiliar with the subjects of student papers and so have a hard time differentiating between quality and substandard sources.

Luckily, UT’s signature courses avoid this common failing by allowing professors to choose specific course topics from within their area of expertise. Instructors’ knowledge and interest in the subject of their students’ research ensures that they will recognize unprofessional sources and that students will receive detailed feedback on their work.

Still, professors and teaching assistants do not have enough time to replicate each student’s research process and read all of their sources in order to evaluate their level of analysis. To this end, the authors of the Citation Project recommend shorter papers based on a limited range of sources provided by instructors. The sources would provide a kind of “control” against which professors could measure the strength of each paper’s analysis.

Although this approach solves one problem — the intractability of tracing and evaluating students’ process of analysis — it eliminates the courses’ critical research component. Even the world’s most insightful analytical skills will be useless to students if they never learn how to seek out appropriate sources.

To improve both analysis and research skills, signature courses should heed the Citation Project’s advice in the beginning of the semester by providing sources for students to evaluate. After honing reasoning and writing skills and becoming familiar with scholarly sources, students will be ready to pursue sources for larger projects on their own. Of course, professors will still have to monitor reference lists diligently, but students will have a broader set of tools and more experience with which to conduct independent research.

The Citation Project report, though its sample of institutions is rather small, may indeed shed light on widespread problems plaguing first-year composition courses, but its call to “scrap the research paper altogether” is premature. Signature courses offer incoming students skills and resources far too valuable to sacrifice; it is not yet time to sound the death knell for the freshman composition course. Instead, we should embrace UT’s innovative signature course format and work to improve rather than abolish it.

Oliver is an English and sociology freshman.