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Research Skills in ENG 125

Approaches to research in first semester composition

Focus on Research Skills

Research skills and research writing are key components in the learning objectives for first year composition courses across CUNY. At York, we have chosen to divide the research tasks between our two courses:

  • In English 125, we focus on the development of key research skills: locating and evaluating sources. This work culminates in an Annotated Bibliography.
  • In English 126, we focus on the practice of research writing: incorporating and synthesizing sources. This work culminates in a short research essay of 5-6 pages. 

In English 125, students become familiar with different types of sources, methods of searching, and a few of the databases available through the York College Library. They should be guided through the search process with instruction on: previewing sources, the use of search terms, and ways to narrow searches.

Special attention should be given to the evaluation of these sources for reliability and relevance. Instructors should also work with students on summarizing sources and preparing Works Cited entries in MLA style. Discussions about academic integrity in research should be woven throughout the research process and classroom activities.

Library and Databases

Students in English 125 should be exposed to the York College Library and the databases available to them as enrolled students. We encourage instructors to book an information literary session with one of our college librarians. Please note that these sessions are most helpful when they are tied to a specific objective, such as searching specific databases, or locating sources on a specific topic.

When discussing the search process, stress that students should use this as an opportunity for exploring and learning something about a given topic rather than simply “finding” sources. (For more on why this framing encourages deeper research, see “Talking About Information Literacy” by Wendy Holliday and Jim Rogers.)

Evaluating Sources

Work with students to develop criteria for evaluating the sources they find, giving consideration to authority, purpose, currency, relevance, etc. You may find that sharing a number of sample sources for students to evaluate in groups is particularly helpful. Remind students, however, that hard and fast rules about what is and is not reliable may not be as effective as subjecting the claims within a text to a critical eye.

For web-based sources in particular, you may wish to consider other approaches, such as the SIFT approach, in which one looks for other verification of a claim and aims to find the context for that claim.

MLA style and Citations

In English 125, students should be developing ethical citation and attribution skills, including documenting sources in MLA style. However, since the finer points of citation format often shift from one edition of the MLA guide to the next, we strongly recommend focusing on general citation principles rather than on style minutiae.

Rather than drilling students in MLA style, work with them to develop their understanding of the purposes of documentation and to help them recognize and locate the key elements that citations require. Direct students to reliable sources for the style guidelines, such as the MLA handbook and/or the Purdue OWL. Have them practice classifying kinds of sources so they are able to follow the style guidelines effectively.

If you wish your students to use automatic citation generators, demonstrate how crucial it is to input information correctly—this can be part of a lesson in identifying and classifying the key pieces of information about a source.

Summarizing Sources and the Annotated Bibliography

An Annotated Bibliography of 3-4 texts is the culmination of the work students do in English 125 to develop research skills. These annotations should include short summaries of those works along with commentary on how the source might addressing a particular research focus or question. You may wish to allow students to explore a topic/question of their choice, or to provide a few, related to class readings, that students can further explore. This sample Annotated Bibliography assignment may be adapted for your class.

Class activities around the Annotated Bibliography should incorporate summarizing exercises, with practice focused on locating the main idea and key points of a source and generalizing from those points to produce a concise summary in the student’s own words.

(For more on the importance of summary in developing students’ abilities to write without plagiarism, see “Writing From Sentences, Writing From Sources” by Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue.)