One writing skill that students really struggle with in their transition to college is the process of invention: the ability to generate new ideas rather than just regurgitating what has been done before. Most college professors expect to see an arguable, inventive thesis in students’ papers. And, even when it’s not a part of the assignment, it’s the sort of skill that helps a student stand out in the crowd.
There are a number of reasons why students struggle with the invention process. There have been a number of reported changes in students’ expectations about the educational process. Some have speculated that the focus on standardized tests contributes to students’ discomfort with the idea that the answers aren’t already in a book or, preferably, in the classroom lecture. There are also reported decreases in reading and studying time, which would make the invention process down-right impossible. How can you come up with something new if you don’t know what other people have already done?
It’s also possible that students–because they are so unfamiliar with the process–are simply overwhelmed and intimidated by those who are capable of doing it. I’ve certainly come across more than one student who seemed to think that my knowledge in my subject area was somehow innate, and sometimes that can prevent students from even trying.
It’s important for students to understand how people get to be experts in their field, so that we downplay the amount of voodoo in this process. Yes, it’s difficult to explain exactly how somebody starts to formulate a new idea, but it’s a lot easier to ask questions (and generate new answers) if you’ve already read a lot about the topic.
One strategy that might help students to understand the process is to have them research the research process. There is a growing body of research about the scholarly research process, including this article: Journal Article Growth and Reading Patterns by Carol Tenopir, Regina Mays and Lei Wu. This is available for free for a limited time, so if you’re quick, you can download a .pdf for future use.
Another strategy (which I am stealing from Andrea Nolan, one of my colleagues at Old Dominion University) is to have students interview professors in their field to find out what their scholarly practices are like. This assignment helps to students to understand the research process, and it gives them an opportunity to learn about their professors that they might otherwise not get.
Whatever strategy we use, it is important that we start to teach more about the research process. Students and the public need to understand that textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other references sources don’t just come from thin air. They are the product of considerable time and effort. The process that produces them requires skill, but it is a skill that can be taught.