Using I-Charts to Teach the First-Year Research Paper | A Coreq Campfire Session

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This post is part of the Campfire Session series from Corequisite Composition Summer Camp 2021. You can find all recorded sessions and resources from Camp here.

By Christina Di Gangi, Dawson Community College

The Problem: Bridging the Gap between Informative and Analytic Writing

In teaching terms, I am a career literature generalist with almost sole responsibility for my college's co-requisite writing model. From my vantage point, I understand that my students struggle to bridge the gap between informative and analytic writing. Close reading is ‘back’ in part due to the CCSS (Common Core State Standards)—but while students may know how to find extensive information on a given topic, they do not always start college fully equipped to write a more analytic research paper using peer-reviewed research writing.

This gap becomes especially pressing if the research paper is taught in the first-semester writing class, with students going on to write papers in their major immediately thereafter. My job is to get students up to speed. For this reason among others, reading research articles is a major focus in our co-requisite model writing labs.

One Potential Solution: Inquiry Charts or I-Charts (Hoffman, 1992) 

In completing ancillary graduate coursework on reading to facilitate my teaching of our co-requisite-model courses, I learned about James V. Hoffman’s 1992 Language Arts article, “Critical reading/thinking across the curriculum: Using I-charts to support learning.” Inquiry charts, or I-Charts, are graphic or cognitive organizers that K-12 students can use to map information from prior knowledge—“activating prior knowledge”—along with their reading from informative sources: This lets students build connections in ways that simply restating information from pre-selected readings does not. Hoffman proposes a model where students work together in class before moving to individual practice, but the graphic organizer concept is flexible and adaptable. Before and during reading, students have space to enter information they already know about a topic, and then space to combine this prior knowledge with additional detail and meaning from other sources that they read. The I-Chart struck me as a flexible tool. Since my first-year writing students face the challenging task of improving their facility with peer-reviewed research articles while at the same time learning how to put together a college-level research paper, I wanted to design a cognitive organizer for them that would help them both to read the research articles that they had selected and then to place those articles in level-appropriate research papers of their own. 

I note that instructors can prepare students to use a cognitive organizer like the I-Chart within the natural flow of class, as they teach students to search, organize, analyze, and write about research topics. Within our co-requisite model, I find that students benefit from preparatory instruction both on isolating the content of research articles and on writing about individual research articles before moving to a longer paper. Two preparatory techniques that I would highlight are quizzes and short reviews:

For quizzes, I have students practice isolating the methods and findings of abstracts, then of whole short research articles. I pick level-appropriate articles and have them annotate their copies as well as practice writing analytic clusters and paragraphs using page numbers and quotations from the articles. 

Writing short reviews of single research articles helps students improve in that genre but also prepares them to write a summative research paper in my class, basically a review of research.

Using the I-Chart to Plan and Draft Beginning College Research Papers

Preparatory work on isolating the features and key points of peer-reviewed research articles prepares students to complete an I-Chart or similar cognitive organizer, which they can then use to structure and complete shorter and longer research assignments. Students can practice using multiple articles to complete an I-Chart in groups before moving to individual practice; they can then apply the technique to the topic of their own paper, whether that topic be pre-assigned or self-selected. Once the table has been completed, students have a visual that should suggest to most how writing about their chosen articles can be organized in a longer framework such as a research paper. In my first-semester writing class, students are specifically asked to organize their final research papers as a survey of current research using six or more research articles.

Again, this is a very flexible technique. I have students write a three-source midterm, more of a ‘sandbox’ for the final paper than a full-length research paper, and then write a final paper using six or more peer-reviewed sources—but the I-Chart can easily be adapted to the needs of your particular class. For example, students could use the I-Chart to organize thoughts about a set of theme-based readings before they get into research writing; if they were more advanced, they could write about six articles for a draft around midterm and expand the number of sources for their final project.

Some students may even want to change the organizing categories to suit their thought process a little better, which has certainly worked for students of mine in the past. As I emphasize to students, the goal is to track their personal analysis of the peer-reviewed research sources that they are using, then to place them in the context of their future thinking and writing—rather than to have a beautifully completed chart. An added bonus is that students can learn to detach their analytic process from trying to produce beautiful writing—they can focus on organizing and showing their thought process before they turn to redraft and polish their work. 

Given all of these benefits, it is my hope that this use of a graphic organizer to facilitate analytic reading and writing for beginning college students is an honest use of a technique from the teaching of reading, a field from which—in terms of my own teaching, certainly—I still feel that I have much to learn.