To think about "research as learning" we should separate "research" from "writing."

We are motivated to conduct research for many different reasons, and few of those reasons are "to write a research paper." We use the results of our research, our learning, for many purposes.

One of the goals of education should be to develop more effective "research" skills, to continue to develop "information literacy." The process described below challenges you to think of research as a process of inquiry and questioning.

Identifying a "topic" is only a first step in an assigned project / assignment, and not sufficient for a successful outcome on the assignment.

In settings outside of school, we are moved to research and write because we have identified a problem that affects some part of our work or personal life. We recognize that we can use writing to help solve a problem; we can use writing to persuade others to see our point of view, to do something to help us, to do something to solve the problem we have identified.

In settings outside of school, we are surrounded by "topics," because our lives are complex, interconnected with others, with organizations, with communities, in our careers and personal and civic lives. We don't "pick a topic." Events in our lives gain our attention and call on us to act. Often that call to act means learning more, researching, using language as a tool to accomplish an objective.

So ideally, instead of finding a "topic," writers identify specific problems that affect them and specific others, and they attempt to solve or learn more about these problems.

In school, getting beyond "topic" means thinking carefully / critically about a "topic," which leads easily to many different kinds of problems associated with the "topic." What counts as a problem depends in part on who the problem affects and how it affects them. It's a function of "who cares?" or "so what?"

When writers identify the problem, or the specific aspect(s) of the problem on which they will focus, they realize they need to know more / learn more--about the problem, about possible solutions, about what others have done / are doing. That realization leads to writers becoming learners / researchers.

Writers who become learners / researchers are most successful with their learning / research if they develop questions to guide their research. Those questions are most productive when they are "how" and "why" and "so what" questions. But they also include "who," "what," "when."

Further, questions don't necessarily lead to immediate answers. Ideally, in fact, questions lead to more questions, when "answers" cause us to ask "why that and not anything else"? Or when we find an answer and ask "because"? In other words, questions become guides on a structured path of inquiry.

Research is not the entry of keywords or "topics" in a search field. We use questions to help us with keywords and search terms, and we use the questions to help us sort through the results of our searches. Research is meant to provide us with answers to questions, not to provide us with materials we can plug into our text.

As we are researching and learning, we are also considering how we might address the problem that we have identified that has lead us to our research. We are analyzing / evaluating what we are learning and deciding what we might use to help readers understand what we are trying to do with our writing.

In college courses that ask you to produce writing that uses research, instead of focusing on researching a "topic," consider ways to identify related problems / issues / and questions:

For example:

  • Who cares about a "topic"?
  • Why do they care? Why should they care? (This avenue could lead to identifying aspects of a topic are an issue or problematic for others.)
  • Narrowing from topic to issue or problem, you can ask similar questions: A problem for whom? Why? How?
  • How many different views do you discover related to the problem or issue?
  • What can you learn about each of the views?
  • How can you contribute to the ongoing conversation about the issue or problem?
  • Considering the specific issue or problem, what more do you need to know to contribute to / participate in the conversation? What kinds of questions will you be trying to answer with your research?
  • How will you use what you are learning?

Note how these kinds of questions might be "rhetorical," inviting you to identify a reason to research / write, an audience you want to reach with your writing, and appropriate content for the purpose and audience.