Mentoring Undergraduates in Their Research Proposal Writing: EFL Students in Taiwan

Ya-Hui Kuo, Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages, Taiwan
Jean Chiu, Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages, Taiwan


Abstract

Many colleges and universities in Taiwan have incorporated research courses into the school curriculum in an effort to meet the demands of higher education. However, not much research has emphasized EFL (English as a Foreign Language) college students' research writing needs in Taiwan. For this reason, the purpose of this research project is to investigate pedagogical strategies to help EFL students in Taiwan write research papers in the following four stages: choosing a topic, forming the research question, writing a literature review with critical thinking, and selecting proper methodology and method. This study uses a qualitative research method to explore students' needs in research proposal writing under the guidance of the instructors. The goal of this research is to discover the critical elements that affect the success or failure of Taiwanese students' research proposals.

Introduction

During the past few decades, a comparatively large number of studies have been conducted on the mentoring issue in higher education. However, there has been relatively little research conducted on mentoring undergraduates' research writing. To the researchers' best knowledge, research that has empirically documented mentoring undergraduates in Taiwan is scant and none is solely dedicated to mentoring undergraduates' research writing. This section provides an overview of mentoring drawn from the existing literature, and the range of mentoring research writing-related challenges experienced by undergraduate and graduate students are elicited as well.

An Overview of Mentoring

According to Powell (2005), mentoring is about creating a relationship that helps people grow and that influences a mentee. Chan (2000) points out that mentorship typically refers to an extended relationship over a period of time between a professional or mentor and a student who is variously called a protégé, intern, apprentice, mentee, or assistant. Maack and Passet (1994) report that a mentor is someone assisting junior staff members who are struggling with their first positions as post-doctoral academics, still trying to manage their careers and learning how to write and publish and how to prepare for tenure within higher education (as cited in Sengupta & Leung, 2002). However, what makes a good mentor? Ishiyama (2007) compared Caucasian and Africa American students' expectations and perceptions of undergraduate research mentoring and found that White students tend to describe a good mentor as an “expert in the field,” while African American students describe a good mentor as someone “personally concerned with the students' welfare” (Ishiyama, 2007, p. 547). One student cited by Ishiyama (2007) expressed that he or she likes a mentor to ask how life is going. It goes without saying that mentor relationships between faculty and doctoral students do encourage collegiality and mutual responsibility for learning (Gibson & Bannerman, 1997).

Cramer and Prentice-Dunn (2007) further add that an effective mentor is aware of the issues college students encounter. Doctoral students in the Cobb et al. (2006) study said that mentors should help them to adapt to their new identities and roles and to navigate them through the dark and unfamiliar doctoral process. Berger (1992) and Jacobi (1991) echo that supportive mentors have been cited as offering opportunities to develop self-awareness and identity, resulting in increased assertiveness, positive presentation of self, and high career expectations (as cited in Bruce, 1995). Rose (2003) distributed 141 surveys, and of the eighty-two that were returned, the data reveal that participants believe their ideal mentors are those who communicate openly, clearly, and effectively and provide honest positive and negative feedback about their work. The role of mentoring thus involves open communication, effective feedback, and helping one grow in the process. However, as Cramer and Prentice-Dunn shared in their study, it is not easy to attract motivated and skilled mentors who are under pressure to publish research, participate in service, and teach effectively to mentor undergraduates. Maybe a small compensation would motivate more mentors to take part in mentoring undergraduates (Cramer & Prentice-Dunn).

In this study, the researchers define research mentoring as the process in which the instructors have individual conferences and meetings with students outside the class to discuss questions and problems that students were unable to resolve or clarify in the class. Specifically, instructors have to spend a great deal of time helping students to overcome all the possible challenges they encounter during the research writing process. On the other hand, instructors are willing to meet with students and provide the guidance they need to finish their research papers, such as assisting them in revision.

Mentor and Mentee Relationship

The literature has pointed out that mentors' and mentees' relationships have been an important issue in helping doctoral students with research writing. Williamson and Fenske (1992) indicate that the quality of interaction with the faculty mentor is central to students' ultimate satisfaction with the doctoral experience, especially in mentoring minority Mexican American and American Indian doctoral students. Similarly, in a study that examined the relationships between African American doctoral students and their major advisers, Holland (1993) concluded that the major adviser was found to play a significant role in the academic life, satisfaction, and career preparation of African American doctoral students. Paglis, Green, and Bauer (2006) surveyed 357 doctoral students attending a Midwestern land-grant university in the United States during the first three weeks of their first semester as doctoral candidates. Surprisingly, they found that interacting with a faculty mentor may even have a negative effect on their attitudes about career choices. Their study indicates that exposure to the reality of a professor's life during graduate study actually turn some students away from pursuing a research-oriented academic career. In fact, the prospect of finding a mentor can be complex and intimidating, particularly for new graduate students (Rose, 2003).

On the other hand, faculty can act as gatekeepers and mentors depending on whether they want to make or break a student (Smith, 1995). In Jacks, Chubin, Porter, and Connolly's (1993) study, all the psychologists cited problems with their doctoral committees or advisers as a major reason doctoral students fail to complete their dissertations.

Smith (1995) studied challenges facing contemporary women doctoral students. Women in Smith's study note that faculty can be categorized as five types: those who want to help students find their own voices and discover their relationships to research; those who want to shape students in their own image; those who are too busy with their own agendas to even notice the student (unless they happened to share similar research interests); those who are expressly hostile and vindictive toward students; and those who use students to serve their own agendas. For example, Williamson (1994) studied 214 Mexican American and American Indian doctoral students from six major research universities in five contiguous Southwestern states within the United States and reported that one Mexican American female in the study revealed she was insulted by a female professor of a different ethnic background who proclaimed that the student's participation in the doctoral program was beyond her imagination based on the project and work she did. Perhaps it was indeed beyond the professor's imagination that the student's project that she disapproved of was actually published three years later.

Bruce (1995) proclaims that mentors interacting with students will help them achieve autonomy, a sense of competence, and mutual respect. Similarly, Cramer and Prentice-Dunn (2007) point out that when faculty make students visible in the department and on campus, it helps them get to know the students better. Sadly, at the same time, interactions between doctoral students and the major advisers could be “business-like” (Holland, 1993). To keep in touch with professors, Cobb et al. (2006) suggest using e-mail, which many people would perceive to be less invasive compared to a phone call or office visit. The researchers of this study thus wonder if face-to-face mentoring is important in helping Taiwanese EFL students.

Students' Research Writing Experience

Falconer and Holcomb (2008) studied seventeen undergraduate students' experiences at a summer research program. Participants in the study indicated that interacting with their mentors was vital to their overall writing experiences. In fact, according to Anderson and Shore (2008), undergraduate students can become frustrated with faculty, the program, and the university if they do not have mentors. Yet many students perceive taking a research class as a horrifying experience. Di Pierro (2007) found that even doctoral students often struggle in silence with issues of developing research proposals and writing literature reviews. Furthermore, while doctoral students have advisers as guides to mentor them during the dissertation process, they frequently discover they are uncertain about the research process. A similar result came from Manis, Frazier, Kouassi, Hollenshead, and Burkam (1993), who surveyed graduate students at a prestigious university regarding the quality of their graduate experiences. They reported that one of the most frequently cited sources of delay toward a degree is the lack of adequate mentoring or advising.

On the other hand, while students do not like research writing, teachers also find it challenging to read students' research writing and provide specific comments. Jensen, Martin, Mann, and Fogarty (2004) declare “many faculty members believe editing documents for spelling, grammar, a specific writing format style, and scientific writing style is not their responsibility; consequently, papers are read with only content and data analysis in mind” (p. 44).

Mentoring Students during the Writing Research Process

Fernando and Hulse-Killacky (2006) use an invert triangle visual to help doctoral students develop a dissertation research question. They identify specific steps for students to follow. The first step focuses on what they want to know. The second step targets their research goal. Then students spend a great deal of time reviewing literature to find out what has or has not been done in the literature. Finally, they analyze how the research is relevant to their fields of study.

According to Shirley (2004), effective paraphrasing is the most difficult part of research writing, especially for undergraduates. In that study, many students understand how to summarize literature review, yet sometimes entire blocks of quotations appear in their essays. As a result, Shirley emphasized the importance of teaching students what paraphrasing is and how to paraphrase in their own research-based papers.

Stamatakos (1979) claims that research, writing, review, retyping, simmering, final reviewing, and submitting are steps to take in order to make a contribution to professional literature and the practice of the profession. In Everhart's (1994) book on research, students may rely on resources that will assist in their writing, including choosing a topic, doing library research, writing an outline, taking notes, writing a rough draft, and editing and polishing the final paper. There seems to be procedural instruction, yet there is a gap between the procedure and exactly what is needed to guide EFL students in writing a research proposal. It requires more than “lecturing” the steps to take EFL students from where they are to where they need to be via mentoring.

In short, while mentor relationships are highly significant in doctoral satisfaction (Williamson, 1994), it is also believed at the undergraduate level that advisers, mentors, and professors should provide everything students need to complete their research or studies. According to Yarnal and Neff (2007), daily interaction and mentoring do foster students' enthusiasm for research and are more likely to promote collaborative research in the future. However, Bean, Readence, Barone, and Sylvester (2004) conducted a case study on a mentor and mentee relationship, and their findings indicate that the mentor has a different point of view toward the mentor and mentee relationship. The mentor asserts that she or he will collaborate and mentor the mentee but will not step forward to provide all the support and direction that the mentee needs. The mentor believes students have to do it on their own and must know where to get the answers, other than from the mentor.

Methodology

In this current study, a qualitative methodological approach was chosen for specific following reasons. First, when attempting to examine human experiences and describing them in detail, a qualitative approach is considered appropriate (Bender, 1993). Second, Strauss and Corbin (1990) indicate “qualitative methods can be used to uncover and understand what lies behind any phenomenon about which little is yet known” (p. 19). Moreover, Merriam (1998) asserts that the use of qualitative methods is important in studies that focus on insight, discovery, and interpretation of issues not fully developed. Therefore, this research meets all of these criteria.

More importantly, the researchers of this study chose to use a qualitative approach based on the nature of the research topic: mentoring EFL college students' research proposals in Taiwan. The researchers believe that a qualitative approach is a suitable method to better understand the challenges that college students experience during the proposal writing stage. A qualitative research method gives participants the voice to express their true feelings, rather than force them to choose the closest answer in a quantitative survey.

Survey

The qualitative research method the researchers utilized was a structured survey. Participants were undergraduate students enrolled at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. To collect the survey data, 111 students were invited (sixty-five were asked by e-mail and forty-six were asked by way of printed and distributed surveys), yet only fifty-two students (eight by e-mail and forty-four by printouts) completed the survey. Researchers analyzed the data immediately upon collection. To ensure the reliability and validity during the data analysis process, researchers applied one of the triangulation methods—member checks. According to Berg (1995), the purpose of triangulation is not “the simple combination of different kinds of data, but the attempt to relate them so as to counteract the threats to validity identified in each” (p. 5). Further, triangulation enriches the data and makes the findings more believable (Glensne, 1999). Therefore, the researchers both analyzed the data individually and then discussed the results together to ensure that the member-check triangulation increased the validity and reliability of the research findings.

Instrument

The lead author of the study developed an evaluation rubric to use when mentoring students. The evaluation rubric also suggests how students' proposals should look or, more specifically, how their research writing instructors will grade their proposals. The evaluation rubric was distributed at the beginning of the semester, and the researchers used them when interacting with students during the research proposal writing process. Instructors did not expect students to bring the evaluation rubric with them to meetings, because instructors know the rubric by heart and also make notes in students' proposals.

For example, if the researchers found that the students' research topics or titles were not on the right track, the researchers would guide the students by asking them to indicate clearly, creatively, descriptively, and succinctly the focus of their papers.

If students' abstracts were less then 120 words or more than 150 words, the researchers would make a note and, when meeting with students, ask how many words an abstract should have. Furthermore, if students' abstracts were poorly developed, the researchers would lead them in discussing the components of an abstract and important aspects to include. When students explained to the researchers what steps they should have taken, the researchers later asked the students to jot down what they discussed and then work independently to make corrections. Similarly, this method is useful to teach students how to write acceptable introductions, literature reviews, and method sections.

English is not these students' first language; thus, to better assist them with English writing, the researchers taught students to write effective sentences while reading other research articles. To accomplish this, the researchers first used sample research articles from the textbook as well as prepared handouts to guide students in identifying and highlighting correct sentence structures. Basically, the researchers tried to teach students not to repeat verbs, especially when writing literature reviews, in order to avoid beginning sentences with “Author A said,” “Author B said,” “Author C said” or “Author A found,” “Author B found,” and “Author C found.” Instead, the researchers encouraged their students to compose sentences, such as “Kuo (2009) investigated ...,” “Findings of Kuo's (2009) study revealed that ...,” “Kuo (2009) conducted her study with X students and the results of her study showed that ...,” “A study by Kuo (2009) at Wenzao sought to determine the relationship between A and B,” and “The findings showed X problem areas most frequently mentioned by participants in Kuo's (2009) study.”

Students shared with the researchers what they had highlighted during the literature review writing process to ensure they were on the right track. When students reported difficulties in finding literature reviews, the researchers would not simply provide the requisite literature review. Instead the researchers asked students to think and encouraged them to use different key words when searching. The researchers also recommended several popular websites, databases, and search engines for their students' reference. When necessary, the researchers helped students search the literature while sitting together in front of a computer. If students were unable to cite their references in correct American Psychological Association (APA) format, the researchers would bring resource books with different colors highlighting the common mistakes students make and indicating the kinds of citations students need to write. The researchers also posted several APA citation guidelines on the e-course for students' reference.

Results

Based on the questions asked in the semi-open survey, the research results are categorized into five sections: Students' Perceptions of Conducting Research, Students' Experiences in Conducting Research, Students' Challenges in Research Proposals, Students' Strategies in Overcoming Challenges, and Desired Assistance and Needs during the Proposal Writing Stage.

Students' Perceptions of Conducting Research

The first survey question asked the participants to use three words to describe their perceptions of doing research. Among the structured survey responses, the following positive words were reported: “discover truth,” “solution,” “interesting,” “meaningful,” “discussible,” “thoughtful,” “contribution,” “specific,” as well as “analysis.” The negative words that occurred were: “difficult,” “hard,” “powerless,” “painful,” and “challenge.” Therefore, the researchers can identify that students' perceptions of conducting research are overall both negative than positive. The demands of a long-term, tough exploration on a specific topic might be the reason students gave negative responses, such as “difficult,” “hard,” “powerless,” “painful,” and “challenge.” Students perceive that conducting research is a great challenge due to efforts required to form a research proposal. On the other hand, “discover truth,” “solution,” “interesting,” “useful,” and “investigation” refer to the discovering of truth in an investigation of a research study. Students pointed out the problem-solving nature of the research process. In addition, doing research involves critical thinking skills. This is partially why students perceive research to be “debatable,” “discussible,” “thoughtful,” “curious,” and “analysis.” Negative perception is related to negative experiences based on the lack of critical thinking skills and the need to foster these skills throughout the research writing process.

Students' Experience in Conducting Research

The structured survey asked participants to use three words to describe their experiences while doing research. Data from the structured survey indicate that students' experiences are also positive and negative. For example, those who gave negative responses pointed out that their experiences in doing research are “exhausting,” “tiring,” and a “time-consuming journey.” Words like “tired,” “boring,” “confused,” “unpredictable,” “stressful,” and even “suffering” also occurred in the study.

While some students in this study described their experiences as “suffering,” other students expressed their research experience as “harvestable” and “rewarding.” However, even those students who experienced “interesting” and “strong interests” also said they were “worried and stressful” and “challenged.” Finally, one student mentioned three related words—“copy, copycat, copyist”—to emphasize the important issue of properly identifying others' works. Based on the above findings, the researchers concluded that participants' experiences in conducting research are both positive and negative. Therefore, the next section specifies the challenge that students found in doing research.

Students' Challenges in Research Proposals

Of all the challenges that students experience during their proposal writing stage, narrowing down a topic was the most frequently reported. In addition, analyzing the data, selecting a method, and writing literature reviews were also mentioned in the study. Students also found that lacking sufficient knowledge on research proposal writing is quite frustrating. EFL students who need to refer to abundant Chinese books, articles, and references encounter difficulty in translating summaries of Chinese sources into English. It is especially troublesome when some Chinese words, phrases, or concepts cannot be translated into another language. If the sources are in English, students have difficulties understanding technical terminology of the literature review in English before writing summaries and critical comments. Lastly, EFL students also have problems organizing literature reviews into logical order and suitable categories. In short, EFL students have challenges narrowing down topics, writing English literature reviews from Chinese sources, and choosing research methods. The following section presents students' strategies in overcoming these challenges.

Students' Strategies in Overcoming Challenges

After identifying the challenges students experience during the proposal writing stage, the survey then asked students to illustrate the means and strategies they utilized, if any, to overcome these challenges. Based on the findings, the major strategies used to overcome research challenges are consulting with teachers, referring to literature, and interacting with other students. Students agree that discovering problem-solving processes with their teachers is very effective. All students point out the importance of teacher consultations. Students found one-on-one consultations with teachers particularly helpful in clarifying problems, narrowing down topics, and selecting research methods. Also, a majority of students mentioned that they read research papers in related fields to increase their understanding of the issues. Others identified comments from classmates or friends as helpful in clearing up their problems. In addition, time management is an important factor in research writing. One student suggested, “Arrange after-class time well, and follow the teacher's schedule” as strategies needed to complete research proposals on time.

Desired Assistance and Needs during Proposal Writing Stage

The last structured survey question asked students to share needs and assistance they desire during the proposal writing stage. The identified assistance and needs in the research proposal stage include three aspects: teacher's clear illustration in narrowing down the topic, assistance in forming the research question, and library search for sources. First of all, students wish to narrow down their topics after they have chosen a broad field. They would like teachers to provide more detailed procedures to help them reduce topics to a manageable scope. Second, they are unsure whether their research questions are acceptable and feasible. They need help to form research questions that will reflect the critical element they desire to include in their research studies. Third, library search assistance also supports the information searching process. A librarian's tutorial helps research students who have no previous experience in information searches for research writing. In addition, students mentioned other minor needs, such as receiving feedback on focused writing and help in correcting grammatical problems. One student mentioned how important it is for students to work hard to finish research writing. To sum up, students need help in narrowing down topics, forming research questions, conducting library searches, writing with focus, and correcting grammar.

Discussion

Based on the research results, there is a four-phase procedure that the researchers found quite helpful to students' research writing. The identified needs include narrowing down a topic, forming research questions, reviewing literature, and selecting a method. In addition, the needs of EFL students specifically must be taken into consideration.

The majority of students in this study indicated they have difficulty finding and narrowing down topics. Therefore, the first steps teachers can take to help involve brainstorming research ideas, choosing topics for problem solving, and narrowing down topics by providing consultation. At this first stage, teachers can help students narrow down their topics by doing general-to-specific practice. It is also very important for teachers to emphasize to students that they are not doing a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation. Thus, they should not choose an unrealistic topic that might take them years to finish. Furthermore, it is important to tell students not to change their topics like changing their dirty clothes. Students should preserve their approved topics until they complete their research.

In the second stage, forming research questions is the most critical element. The suggested guidelines are detailed as follows: thinking about how to solve the problem in the topic, writing the key research idea in a sentence, writing different possible operational definitions of the research question, organizing a conceptual definition of the key research idea, turning it into a question, and finalizing the research question. To help students form research questions, instructors may ask students to brainstorm what they want to learn most from their research. More importantly, research questions should be examined or discovered. Research questions will determine the type of research method students will use and who will be research participants. As a result, teachers and students need to be sure that research questions are feasible and can be completed within the given time.

The third stage focuses on literature review. The suggested procedure includes searching relevant literature, comprehending the main idea of the literature, taking notes and quotes, writing summaries, categorizing literature, evaluating the value of the source, writing the literature review based on the research question, and determining the crux of these research projects' methods, designs, analyses, and implications. In this stage it is important, first of all, to remind students not to plagiarize. Second, they need to learn how to cite their references in APA or Modern Language Association (MLA) style, accordingly. Third, it is also very helpful to teach students how to organize their references by putting them in alphabetical order. Fourth, it is worthwhile taking notes with correct sentence structure while reading the literature. Teachers need to guide students in applying all of these guidelines in their own research papers.

The selection of methodologies and methods involve a long process. Students need to review the literature, choose suitable research methodologies that fit their research questions, select specific research methods to collect data, design research measurements, and ask for experts' comments on the validity of the measurements and the feasibility of the research designs. If teachers are not experts in both qualitative and quantitative research methods, it is a good practice to invite professional researchers to present a lecture to students and answer their questions about research methods and methodology.

Finally, students' EFL needs are an issue throughout the process. Teachers should meet the needs of different EFL students across diverse topics. The initial challenge in research proposals is improving students' understanding of the surface meaning and technical terminology in literature reviews as it is presented in different levels and complexities in English. Occasionally, the literature will be beyond the comprehension of some EFL students. Second, after comprehension, students must learn to organize these English sources in logical order and suitable categories. In addition, they also need to think in English and be able to write in accurate, grammatically correct, and fluent English in order to present all parts of a research proposal. In short, EFL students face challenges in narrowing down topics, writing English literature reviews from Chinese sources, and choosing suitable research methods for their research.

Other researchers in the field should be alerted to limitations of this study. For example, since the study was based in English, some participants may not have felt comfortable completing the survey. For unknown reasons, some invited participants did not respond to the inventory, which means that they may be different from those who did respond. Study participants may also have answered the survey in a way that did not reflect their true feelings. They may have given responses that they believed would fulfill the expectations of the researchers, who happened to be their instructors. This may then decrease the generalizability of the study. Last, it is important to note that since human characteristics and environmental conditions might differ, the findings may not be generally applied to other student populations in Taiwan and overseas.

Conclusion

In view of the challenges of research writing for first-time college researchers, it is important to know the concerns and challenges that students encounter and experience. This study found that EFL students' perceptions and experiences regarding research are both positive and negative, and their identified needs include narrowing down topics, forming research questions, writing literature reviews in English, and selecting methods in the research proposal writing process. Therefore, a four-phase procedure may help students with research proposal writing. This study provides step-by-step pedagogical guidelines ranging from brainstorming the topic to selecting a method. With the given pedagogical support, college EFL students will find research no longer terrifying. They simply follow the guidance of their teachers and brainstorm and narrow down topics, form research questions, write literature reviews, and select research methods. Moreover, to the researchers' best knowledge, as this study is the first project of its kind in Taiwan, it may stimulate other researchers' interest in this area and lead to discovering best strategies to assist undergraduates in their research writing. The researchers of this current study indeed hope their results will shed light on steps that research writing instructors may take to develop pedagogical strategies that will assist students completing research proposals. After all, undergraduates do learn and grow significantly from their research experiences if they have a strong relationship with mentors (Guterman, 2007).

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Reeds, K. (2002). The Zen of proposal writing: An expert's stress-free path to winning proposals. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

About the Authors

Ya-Hui Kuo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Taiwan, Republic of China. Dr. Kuo can be reached at 94101@mail.wtuc.edu.tw.

Jean Chiu, Ed.D., is also an an assistant professor in the Department of English at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages. Dr. Chiu can be reached at jeanchiu@wtuc.edu.tw


Published in The Mentor on December 16, 2009, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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