Aspects of Quality in the Research Papers of Undergraduates: A Case Study


  • Nuru Mohammed-Tahir Assistant Professor, Institute of Language Studies


This paper presents the results of an exploratory study that sought to identify possible gaps in students’ competence in writing. More specifically, the study focuses on the problems experienced by students in organizing and presenting materials to achieve a certain communicative purpose. The study is based on a few cases selected for an in-depth analysis of the problem. Five senior essays written by students in the teaching stream in the Department of Foreign languages and Literature of Addis Ababa University served as the source of data for the study. The basic procedure used for data collection involved conducting an inventory of the problematic parts in the sample students’ written work. The results suggest that the work of students suffered from a range of errors. While some of the errors committed tend to suggest lack of mastery of the basic skill of writing, others appear to be caused by lack of familiarity with the conventions of research report writing. The paper concludes by identifying some of the implications of the findings. One of the abilities that most universities wish their students to develop during their stay at university is the ability to undertake research independently. In fact, the emphasis placed on the need to enhance and foster the research capability of university students at various levels is evident in the long-standing and widespread tradition among universities to require a thesis for graduation. One major purpose of the thesis is to provide evidence that the student is capable of doing two things: namely, undertaking an original research activity and communicating the work done effectively.
Most Departments at AAU have for a long time pursued a policy that stresses the production of a satisfactory thesis by a candidate as a major condition that has to be met for a successful completion of a programme of study leading to a first, second and third degree. Byrequiring a thesis, the university aims to achieve the following purposes. To begin with, writing a thesis provides the student with the opportunity to gain practical experience in research. Arguably, the importance of a thesis lies in its ability to serve as an effective tool for training students in research and problem-solving skills. Secondly, it represents an effective way of encouraging the practical application of knowledge gained through the various courses of a programme. Further, a thesis provides an important mechanism for determining and maintaining quality of scholarship. According to Day (1993), most universities rely on thesis as a source of evidence in assessing whether a candidate has been able to demonstrate an acceptable level of maturation, discipline, and scholarship and hence consider a satisfactory thesis as the "ticket-out". Finally, a thesis provides a valuable experience in terms of preparing the candidate to become a reflective and critical professional capable of solving real problems in his/her career life. It is also noteworthy that this is consistent with the emphasis placed by the National Education and Training Policy (NETP) of Ethiopia to make higher learning institutions research-oriented. In an effort to help the student achieve the desired level of competence in conducting research, many departments in AAU include a course in research methodology with a view to helping students acquire the basic skills and concepts involved in carrying out research. In addition, there has been a long-standing practice to create a situation where candidates are assigned supervisors who can assist them with the writing of their thesis or senior essays. One obvious advantage of such an arrangement is that it allows the student access to the expertise of the faculty in solving practical problems. The arrangement also makes it possible for the student to undertake a research activity under the supervision of an expert, which in turn creates greater opportunity for more meaningful practical training in conducting research.
For quite a long time, an important part of the work of the academic staff of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature of AAU
The Ethiopian Journal of Higher Education Vol. 2 No. 1 June 2005 3
has been to help both undergraduate and post-graduate students in the Department with their written English. In particular, the assistance to undergraduate has been rendered in three forms. Firstly, the Department seeks to improve the writing skills of students by offering basic English proficiency courses. The writing course popularly known as Sophomore English is a case in point. Secondly, there are a series of advanced courses in writing that run in the senior and terminal years. And thirdly, it seeks to improve their writing skill through the feedback and correction on the written work constituting the senior essay. This kind of assistance is offered on a one-to-one basis and is tailored to the needs of individual students. However, it seems that the quality of the written work produced by students after receiving different kinds of assistance and guidance for about three years has often fell short of the expectations of their instructors, supervisors, and potential employers. The purpose of this paper is therefore to identify some of the most persistent difficulties observed in the written work of students. In so doing, this study is confined to the mistakes committed by students in using material to support the assertions they make.