What exactly is research in academic work for? Research begins with curiosity and continues to answer questions we find interesting. In general, research in the academic field can be interpreted as an investigation carried out carefully using specific scientific methods to improve learning quality. As for students, they research because they want to get the “right answers” about a particular academic problem they are investigating. With that effort in mind, research requires a scientific method because one cannot seek this truth solely by relying on intuition or previous experience. (Hendriarto et al., 2021). This qualitative proposal aims at understanding, exploring, and identifying the research skills complexities, development and gaps among EFL Saudi graduate students. Experience and many studies prove that success at the master’s level is closely related to mastering academic research competencies. Typical graduate courses require research skills to complete tasks and reach academic achievement. To firstly commence our discussion and exploration of this issue, findings from previous studies are reviewed followed by texts analysis of 27 written research articles produced by nine graduate students throughout their study in a course titled as (Issues & Debates in EFL Education). The results we obtained from the analysis indicate a number of gaps, challenges and complexities graduate students go through, such as inappropriate information management, the absence of clear structure and logical flow, referencing-related issues, and the absence of literacy. Recommendations for the development of research skills for academic and educational needs include the review of the theoretical basis of the research and the standards of academic writing, the application of particular techniques that may facilitate writing, including the use of outline and helpful questions, and continuous writing and addressing other studies as examples.
In higher education, especially at the master degree level, the efficient development of research competencies is essential as universities are traditionally concerned about preparing professionals who are able to use scientific methods to transform reality. Research writing may be regarded as a particular way in which students may demonstrate their research-related abilities (Allison et al., 2016). As a matter of fact, research competencies and skills refer to an individual’s ability to identify, search for, locate, gain, organize, use, and evaluate subject-related information (Rodríguez et al., 2015; Henderson et al., 2011). At the same time, academic research may be regarded as a particular type of research – it is a process of methodical and detailed investigation in a specific area of study (Travis, 2011). Therefore, it involves investigation, intensive search, critical analysis, and reading and writing skills in response to a hypothesis or research question.
In general, research skills are a person’s ability to find a reliable answer to a particular question or solve a problem. As any research process should be documented in a particular way, academic writing may be regarded as a way in which the research may demonstrate his research skills based on the conceptual framework and the standards of academic writing. Thus, these skills refer to gathering, reviewing, analyzing, and interpreting information to find an appropriate solution. Subsequently, this information should be presented structurally and logically on the basis of the core elements of the research (Abu-Zaid, 2014). Finally, the study should be written according to the standards of academic writing, formatting style, and the rules of language (Biber & Gray, 2010).
In the present day, a considerable number of students demonstrate a lack of research skills even if they are ensured of their existence (Gustavson & Nall, 2011). As the significance of research skills for academic and working performance is undeniable, this proposal aims to evaluate the research skills of graduate students on the basis of their research articles’ content. It will define existing complexities, challenges, and gaps related to research competence to recommend potential solutions for improvement.
Research Question and Background
As a matter of fact, writing is traditionally the factor that determines a student’s success in education. According to Al-Zubaidi (2012), “the ability of students to meet the demands of different genres and rhetorical settings in the workforce depends in large part on whether and how they have developed their writing at university” (p. 47). As writing may be regarded as a highly essential competence, a learner of English as a foreign language with excellent writing skills has more chances for success in his life-long career.
In general, academic writing is closely connected with essential research skills and the development of academic norms that enable graduate students to deliver quality performance and achievements and follow postgraduate requirements. Thus, research writing shows how students understand and master the process of their research applying research skills essential for it (Al-Zubaidi, 2012). As successful writing requires the combination of multiple mental and physical processes to communicate information, it may be defined as a key academic requirement (Canagarajah, 2013). In addition, it requires students “to incorporate and synthesize diverse sources of knowledge into an authoritative viewpoint” on the basis of the conceptual framework of the research (Al-Zubaidi, 2012, p. 47). However, as the number of ELF students is rapidly growing, their academic challenges related to research writing become more obvious and pronounces (Elmas & Aydin, 2017). That is why the study of students’ knowledge content, discourse conventions, disciplinary literacy is necessary for the development of appropriate solutions. Thus, the research question of this proposal is: “What challenges, complexities, and gaps related to research skills do graduate students have and what strategies for their development may be recommended?”
Conceptual (Theoretical) Background
In the present day, in higher education, the development of research skills is necessary for academic achievements and work-related performance in the future. Knowledge about research competencies are provided fundamentally in the aspects of information gathering, methodological domain, and the management of technological tools and document-writing norms (Castillo-Martínez & Ramírez-Montoya, 2021; Hampden-Thompson & Sundaram, 2013). In addition to these aspects, the expediency of mediating didactics’ use is recognized as well. According to Mogonea and Mogonea (2019), research competencies identified on the basis of their pedagogical research project include new knowledge acquisition, researchers’ awareness related to new research methods, educational problems’ identification, argumentation and synthesis, metacognition, the possibility of research tools’ development, and results’ interpretation and dissemination (Feldon et al., 2011). At the same time, research competencies related to academic writing and reading should be considered in particular, especially for university students, as the creation of proper academic paper is impossible without them.
Research skills refer to the understanding of a conceptual framework as a foundation of any research process. Serving as a core of an empirical study, it may be regarded as a guide to research that functions as a comprehensive and integrating ecosystem helping a researcher to bring together all aspects of this study (Ravitch & Riggan, 2016). Being historically confusing, a conceptual framework included multiple elements that were interchangeably and in unclear ways. However, Ravitch and Riggan (2016) aimed to describe a conceptual framework, define its components, and describe how it is applied to studies guiding them from their inception to completion. Thus, a conceptual framework defines the relevance and significance of the research and the expediency of the study design for answering a research question appropriately and rigorously (Varpio et al., 2020). Moreover, it situates the research within multiple contexts that include the methodological approach, such as a particular theory on the basis of which a researcher work, and how this research and its researcher are interconnected (Tamene, 2016). Thus, a conceptual framework consists of the following components:
- Research questions, purposes, and core constructs. They define a researcher’s expectations from the research, key terms required to identify the problem or hypothesis, and practical, intellectual, and personal goals for the study (Sharp & Lang, 2018);
- Theoretical framework, analytical framework, and tacit theories. In this case, a researcher identifies pre-existing theories and empirical studies that may inform his work and tacit theories that facilitate his understanding of the theme;
- Dialogic engagement and reflexivity. In this area, a researcher identifies his relationships with the study, his influence on the study design, and the engagement with his role on the work;
- Research methods, methodological approach, and contexts. A researcher should define an approach that will guide his study, research methods that will be used, and contexts that will inform his topic.
All in all, the conceptual framework may be regarded as a bridge between theories, context, and the structure of the research. At the same time, it is highly essential for the development of research skills (Wolf & De Groot, 2020). First of all, the conceptual framework helps explain why the topic of the research is theoretically and practically important. Subsequently, it guides a researcher through all stages of the research process identifying the research questions, study design, and methodology. Thus, following the conceptual framework, researcher develop their abilities to collect, review, and synthesize information that correspond to the topic and allow to answer the research question in a comprehensive and argumentative way (Meerah et al., 2012). In addition, as the framework identifies the steps of the research, scholars learn to structure information and provide its logical flow for readers’ understanding.
At the same time, major challenges, complexities, and gaps are connected with the misunderstanding of the conceptual framework or a lack of training related to its perception (Rahman et al., 2014). They are connected with poor information management when a researcher does not understand the theme and collect information that does not correspond to it, does not perceive the meaning of the research’s components, and provide a poorly structured work with the absence of logical flow and correct formatting (Leki, 2017).
The methodology chosen for this qualitative proposal implies the analysis of 27 research articles-related texts written by nine Saudi Arabian graduate students during their study in a course Issues & Debates in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Education. All graduate students were at their third semester obtaining the Master degree level. They were enrolled in a particular educational program dedicated to current issues and debates on EFL education. At the end of it, they were required to prepare an analytical publishable paper that should be a literature review dedicated to any topic of their choice in the area of the EFL education field. They were provided with the sample of a work that instructors wanted to receive from them. In addition, students were asked to write an article gradually and present it in three drafts. After submitting every draft, every student received instructors’ feedback and comments to improve and guide a final paper.
All three drafts of every student were analyzed on the basis of five fields that represent research skills. The participation of all students was anonymous, and they are marked as Student 1-9. Research skills of all students in every category were assessed collectively to receive a general insight into research skills complexities, development and gaps among them. Therefore, the areas of research competencies for text analysis were the following:
- Information management. It implies students’ ability to understand the topic and the type of research and gather, review, synthesize and use information for it.
- Argumentation. It is students’ ability to provide thesis statement and valid arguments for readers’ conviction in a clear way. In addition, the development of a strong argument is connected with a researcher’s ability to rely on previous studies and form a persuasive and logical rebuttal to any counterarguments.
- Organization. It refers to students’ ability to organize information in an appropriate way and produce a well-written paper according to the standards of academic writing.
- Clarity and consistency. Clear and consistent writing is connected with a researcher’s ability to keep it straightforward, avoid unnecessary information, and use proper terms.
- Literacy. It refers to students’ ability to write following the standards and rules of academic writing paying attention to correct grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Analysis of Findings
In general, research skills presuppose the student’s understanding concerning the type of a required research. In other words, he should understand what kind of research should be prepared, whether it should be a descriptive research or an experiment, and follow its framework. In general, the majority of students understood that they would prepare an analytical literature review, however, several students did not consider instructions and presented trials (students 2, 4, 5). Moreover, information management presupposes attention to instructions, however, some students did not follow the provided sample or did not include all parts of a paper when they were required, such as results, implications, and articles’ analysis. While the majority of works represented the correlation of collected information with the topic of research, some students demonstrated the misunderstanding of a theme, poor information synthesis, or insufficient coverage of a chosen topic (students 7, 8, 9).
In general, research skills related to argumentation are closely connected with students’ ability to understand a topic and collect, analyze, and present information in an appropriate way. Thus, if students did not synthesize reliable data, they would not be able to provide valid arguments in support of their theses. Thus, some students demonstrated the misunderstand of concepts and inability to support their statements with reliable reasons and consolidate facts with justifications (students 6, 8. 9). Nevertheless, almost all students have managed to provide clear argumentation on their final papers.
An appropriate publishable article should include an abstract, an introduction, background information or the theoretical framework, materials and methods, results, a discussion, and a conclusion. Although students undertook efforts to follow the structure of the research, most of them faced the misunderstanding of key elements. Thus, they included the rationale of research into methods, wrote incorrect objectives, provided the purpose of research instead of its results, duplicated information in sections, poorly organized sections of an article, and mixed their order. Another serious mistake of absolutely all students was connected with referencing. In other words, no one provided a correct referencing list according to the APA style. It was either partially or fully incorrect. Other errors connected with referencing included the absence of citations, incorrect citations with absent page numbers in the case of direct quotations, and the use of a wrong format.
Clarity and Consistency
A considerable number of students had issues with their articles’ clarity. In many works, especially in their initial drafts, logical flow and smooth composition were absent – there were vague and unclear expression of thoughts and too long and meaningless sentences that complicated the understanding of materials (students 5, 6, 7, 8). Another challenge typical for articles was fragmentation – paragraphs were consisted of fragmented sentences that were not connected with each other providing an absence of meaning (students 7, 8).
Along with referencing, literacy may be regarded as another weak point for all students. Although students predominantly used appropriate vocabulary and avoided informal and non-academic expressions, in every article, it was possible to find mistakes related to the use of English language. The most common mistakes included the absence of punctuation, unreasonable capitalization or its absence when necessary, repetitions, wrong spelling, and grammar mistakes.
Discussion of Findings
On the basis of the analysis of Saudi Arabian ELF students’ texts, it is possible to conclude that specific challenges and gaps in relation to research skills are presented. Although the majority of them considered the feedback of instructors and provided final papers of appropriate quality, initial drafts demonstrated several areas that required improvement. In general, all challenges may be divided into the challenges of content and the challenges of a form. Thus, the challenges of content presuppose the absence of research skills related to information management, organization, and clarity. The major complexities here include the incorrect collection and analysis of information connected with a misunderstanding of a topic and a type of research, the misunderstanding of the work’s elements that leads to the absence of structure, and the absence of logical flow along with fragmentation.
In turn, the challenges of a form imply students’ inattention to the standards of academic writing and the rules of English. They include incorrect referencing and format and multiple errors related to literacy, including grammar mistakes, absence of punctuation, wrong spelling, and repetitions. In general, the fact that all students demonstrated a lack of research competence in relation to the organization and literacy of their studies leads to the assumption that students are so concentrated on their articles’ matter that they stop putting any attention to its other aspects. Nevertheless, the research should be regarded as a complete work in which both content and visual representation is correct, and the standards of formats and language should be considered.
It goes without saying that research skills may be improved through the participation in particular programs for students (Galeano et al., 2012; Ewing et al., 2012). However, with an appropriate approach, students may be responsible for their self-education. First of all, the improvement of research skills requires strong theoretical basis (Chamely-Wiik et al., 2014). In other words, students should understand fundamental processes that guide the research. In this case, they should examine the meaning, purpose, and main elements of the conceptual framework to be aware of the research’s principles and stages. Subsequently, students should develop algorithms that will determine their approaches to data collection, analysis, review, and structuring and follow them. For instance, they should initially ask themselves questions to identify the study’s purpose, objectives, methodology, limitations, and implications. In relation to the form of the research, the rules of referencing and language should be reviewed and remembered.
Another beneficial strategy that may be applied by students to improve their research skills s making the outline of the work with the small description or bullet points in every segment. In this way, they will receive a clear vision of what should be included in the study’s parts. Moreover, proficiency is traditionally reached through repetition of any kind. In this case, students may improve their research competence through continuous addressing of other studies and writing their own ones (Miller, 2014). In the first case, when a person reads multiple articles, he will remember their structure, flow, and format to copy it automatically in writing. In turn, writing as many articles as possible will provide constant training that will positively influence the results. All in all, the process of improvement requires motivation and positive attitude to it (Bailey & Carroll, 2010; Minosha & Kerawalla, 2011). According to Fernsten & Reda (2011), self-awareness and confidence are essential for students who meet tha challenges of research writing.
It goes without saying that research skills in academic writing is highly essential for EFL students in education and future career. However, their growing number demonstrate the presence of particular challenges related to research competence. On the basis of the analysis of students’ texts, a range of skill-related complexities was identified, including inappropriate information management, the absence of clear structure and logical flow, referencing-related issues, and the absence of literacy. For the development of research, several strategies may be recommended. They are the review of the theoretical basis, continuous training, addressing examples, and the use of particular strategies, such as the use of outline and helpful questions, for the facilitation of writing.
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