The strong hold of the research paper on the English curriculum over the past fifty years has created instructional and learning challenges that call for innovative solutions. Although concerned educators have developed creative variations to spark student interest and promote critical thinking, research has revealed little change in curriculum design or student performance on the research paper, even with advanced ability students (Ford, 1995; Moulton & Holmes, 2003). The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore how students’ perceptions of the knowledge task presented by a literary analysis research paper related to research and composing strategies for five twelfth-grade advanced students. Social constructivism (Creswell, 2003; Vygotsky, 1934/1986) and phenomenology (Schutz, 1967; Seidman, 1998) served as theoretical frameworks for the study. Three questions guided the research: (1) How might students’ epistemological views be described as they initiate the research paper process? (2) How do students’ epistemological views relate to the choices they make during the research and composing processes? (3) How do students’ epistemological views relate to the final research product?
Data collection and analysis occurred over an eight-month period. Data sources included an epistemological questionnaire (Schommer, 1989), four in-depth phenomenological interviews (Seidman, 1998) conducted with each student at drafting stages, member checking, discourse analysis of free responses and essay drafts, and a researcher’s log. Constant comparative in-case and cross-case analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1994) were used to analyze data. Holistic and four-dimension rubric scoring (content, organization, style, conventions) was used to analyze and evaluate the final essays. Trustworthiness was established through methods that ensured credibility, confirmability, dependability, and transferability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
While participants expressed strong beliefs in complex knowledge and demonstrated high levels of reflective thinking, they differed in their views towards certain knowledge, which resulted in variations in composing strategies and essay quality. Significant relationships were indicated between knowledge views and concept formation, knowledge views and composing strategies, problem solving and the research experience, and reflective thinking and academic challenge. Prior knowledge, motivation, and gender also contributed to different outcomes. Results suggested important directions for research paper design and instruction in the language arts curriculum.