Teaching Tip Tuesday: What Students Say is the Most Useful Thing They Learned for Research Writing

This post is a little bit for my fellow composition instructors, but also relevant for anyone who assigns research projects. A few years ago, I was looking for advice on how to better organize research for a specific writing project. I had already developed a handy way to capture research for future, unspecified uses (more on that in a later post!), but I was struggling to find something that worked for corralling research for a specific project. That’s when I found Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog (and Twitter) on research writing and academic productivity. If you like my blog so far, you’ll probably like his as well! In particular I was struck by his use of an excel spreadsheet to organize research. This might seem obvious to some, but to an English PhD who’s only worked with Annotated Bibliographies, it was a revelation. There’s something about the column/row format that just works to help you see patterns, identify clusters, and explore relationships between sources.

bottled water dump 3
From Pacheco-Vega’s blog / Screenshot of excel spreadsheet used for research

And apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way. My students can’t shut up about it.

Of all the tips and tricks I teach my compositions students for better research and writing, this is the one they mention to me in passing the most often–sometimes semesters later. Just this past semester I had two students mention to me how they liked it so much they’re using it in all their classes that require research this term.

I said this post is for my fellow composition teachers, in part, because I suspect that outside of Comp/English, using spreadsheets for research is probably pretty normal. In my own practice, I still use a combination of spreadsheets and Annotated Bibliographies. But for teaching, I’ve pretty much replaced Annotated Bibliography assignments with spreadsheets except in some of my community-engaged courses where we sometimes craft Annotated Bibliographies for community organizations as a kind of service writing. There are certain project types that benefit immensely from this kind of research organization. However, for genres like Literature Reviews, research papers, or research-based argument essays, spreadsheets rock. At least, that’s what my students tell me. In the 10+ years I’ve been teaching comp, I’ve never had a student say “thanks for making us write that Annotated Bib. It was super helpful.” But I have been thanked for showing them this research spreadsheet.

Some advice if you decide to jump on the spreadsheet bandwagon: customize the columns to fit what kind of information the students should collect for their project. Pacheco-Vega’s system works for his research, but not every column applies to every kind of research. It might even be a good in-class exercise to develop the column criteria with students to help them understand what they should be looking for in research for a given writing project.

Do you use spreadsheets? I’d love to hear what you do with them in class or for your own writing. Or maybe you have some other genius idea for helping students write research papers? Leave a comment below.

Stay tuned for (hopefully) more posts this year about teaching, composition, digital literacy, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions

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