Developing Empirical Research Reports
The objectives of this chapter are to
• Reiterate the role of audience and context in designing reports.
• Explain what empirical research reports are and in what types of contexts they are typically produced.
• Explain the major sections of empirical research reports.
• Analyze several empirical research reports in order to illustrate the great diversity in approaches when developing such reports.
Like Chapters 13 and 14, Chapter 15 is an important application chapter in Reporting Technical Information. Our goals are to help students understand the nuances of and to develop confidence in producing these types of reports, even if they will not complete a whole report during the course.
The similarities between this and the previous chapter are obvious. You may use both chapters in any one semester. For example, you may require a recommendation report in a class that is predominantly business majors and an empirical research report in a class of scientists and engineers. The authors of RTI were thoughtful in separating these two types of reports because they are very different documents in terms of their contexts for use. Although professionals in the scientific fields may see, use, and write empirical reports more often, students in other fields can also benefit from this writing opportunity. Future marketing professionals should see that research may be a significant part of their careers. Humanities majors may enter into jobs requiring grant requests and subsequent deliverables that require elements strongly related to empirical research reports as well.
At minimum, students will benefit from understanding this information because it will help them further understand the research materials they use. Knowing the elements and how they function together will add to students’ understanding of the research journals and other technical reports commonly used as the basis for academic work and for professional data gathering.
You may approach this chapter as a resource for actual report development, or you may use this information as a tool for analyzing already published or professionally created materials. A careful analysis, even without actual research report writing, can yield significantly improved understanding on the students’ part.
Because they share membership in the same genre of documents, the assignments here will closely resemble the assignments listed in Chapter 14:
1. Apply the checklists. A good classroom exercise is to use the checklists at the end of the chapter to analyze the example reports shown within the chapter or contained on the Companion Web Site (www.oup.com/us/houp). Students tend not to read the examples carefully. Also, they tend not to use the checklists when they are completing their own drafts and thus fail to include certain key components. Applying the checklists to the examples in the book or on the Web site may help in both these areas.
2. Show-and-tell empirical research reports. Have students find and bring in empirical research reports to present to the class. An easy and excellent source is research journals in many fields, including the hard sciences, social sciences, engineering, medicine, etc. Some enterprising students may even find slightly nontraditional research reports that accomplish the same purpose, include the same information, but are written to a less common audience (executive, for example) or use organization (or design) not seen in typical research reports. Of course, the Companion Web Site also has several excellent examples. Have students compare the structure of the reports they bring in to the structure shown in the textbook. Encourage them to think critically about how the reports’ content, style, design, and organization are a result of audience needs and expectations.
3. Unscramble scrambled empirical research report text. Take the text of a good research report, scramble the sections moderately, and then retype that text as one huge paragraph without any formatting. Get the class to discuss how to rearrange and format the text. (Get students to bring scissors and tape to class.) Or you can bring a computer and projector into your classroom, and have students tell you how to edit the scrambled text.
4. Group-brainstorm a hypothetical empirical research report project. Plan a research report together as a class. Start with terms common to the students’ major fields. From here, consider research problems related to these terms or even to hot topics seen in the news. Define the research problem; consider the requirements of the literature review; sketch out the methods, equipment, and facilities for the actual text; and imagine the results and conclusions.
5. Interview an experienced professional about the process of developing empirical research reports. Students typically have ready access to professors or other research professionals while in school. Especially for students who want to go into research or academia, interviewing a seasoned professional with experience developing and even publishing research reports will be an enlightening experience. Have students brainstorm questions and write polite interview requests (see Chapter 7). Also make sure that you have students indicate their interviewees up front to avoid repetition. The interview will probably take 30 minutes or more, so you don’t want more than one student requesting help from the same professor (unless they are doing this in groups). Combine this exercise with number 2 above in preparation for an excellent informative report, from individual students or small groups (see project 4 below).
6. Oral presentations on empirical research report projects. Consider having students do brief three- to five-minute oral reports on their empirical research report projects. This works as a group-brainstorming exercise, helps students who are stumped for a project idea, and just generally raises the energy level of the class.
1. Study the style and design of research reports found online. Use the Web’s offering of e-journals as the starting point for this activity. Have students find a research journal published in their general field—with some careful searching, they may even be able to find corporate research reports (in lower security situations). Using Chapter 4 (style), Chapter 8 (document design), and this chapter, students should carefully analyze the sentence structure, word choice, level of formality and complexity; use of headings, spacing, text, lists, and graphics, and overall organization and emphasis in these examples. They can then apply this analysis to expectations for future projects, or they can draw conclusions about the audience-product connection of these materials.
2. Brainstorm, plan, and research a topic for an empirical research report. This activity is very similar to the second activity listed in the “Computer Classroom” section in Chapter 14. See the details there, and adapt it for an empirical research report focus.
3. Search online for information on research methods in your field. This is an adaptation of Exercise 2 in the textbook. This will work best in teams, if possible; however, it can be done individually as well. Group your students by majors, and have them search online for the standard research methods used in their fields. Ask the students to compile a list of the methods with brief explanations and to draft a short slide presentation for the class and to present it using a projector and screen.
The empirical research report is a bit more challenging, because a traditional report requires that research is under way in order to support its content. However, with a little creative thinking, you can still achieve the chapter objectives. Here are a few project ideas.
1. Write the beginnings of an empirical research report. Your students will probably not be involved in any direct empirical research or be able to conduct such research during their semester in technical writing. However, they can write the preliminaries of an empirical research report—specifically, the introduction, literature review, materials and methods section, and perhaps an expected outcomes section (to replace the results and conclusions sections).
2. Write a recommendation report (Chapter 14) on existing research. Another way to get students close to real empirical research is to have them review, summarize, and analyze the existing research literature on a topic. For example, your health sciences and pre-med students could review the literature on caffeine, saccharine, and other substances thought to cause cancer. The analytical part of projects like these would be to make recommendations for further research, evaluate the research that has been done, or both.
3. Create a mini-research report, based upon actual research. If you truly want your students to have the experience of creating a research report, then either let them brainstorm a research project or assign one yourself. Require a process such as interviewing, surveying, or critically observing behavior—something that can be completed with relative ease but will require a detailed description in the methods section. Rather than the report being up to dozens of pages long, set the scope of the project to produce a five-to-seven page report, or even shorter if it will fit in with other semester plans. Think creatively.
4. Report on your interview with a professional as assigned in Activity 5 above. To further tie this to the chapter, have students refer back to the reading as they discuss what they learned in the interview. Students may also ask the interviewee for examples of his or her own reports. These can be incorporated into the discussion and attached as appendixes.
5. Report on your analysis of existing research reports as assigned in the computer classroom Activity 2 above. Make sure students save, possibly print, and definitely refer to the examples found online. Reinforce the need to relate what they found about report style and design back to the audience and to make their analyses critical—looking for ways to improve.
6. In small groups, write a more thorough and detailed report combining projects 4 and 5 above. To truly approach a comprehensive study, have pairs or small groups gather and report on a variety of information sources regarding the report. This will allow them a variety of perspectives from which to judge a document’s effectiveness.
Distance Learning Assignments
1. Post drafts and exchange peer reviews. Apply this especially to writing project 1 above. Much like an in-class workshop, this effort must be carefully orchestrated. Students must post drafts by a pre-set deadline, peer critiques must follow by a specified date, and time between these critiques and the final due date must be sufficient for students to retrieve the comments and make revisions. See the workshop section in this manual for more general hints.
2. Develop an in-depth literature review and post it as a Web page or small Web site. This is very similar to distance learning project 2 in Chapter 14, combined with traditional classroom project 1 above. The benefit of doing this online is that students can link to their research sources for support and further reference. The extent of this hyperlinking can be minimized, for reference only, or maximized to truly integrate the sources via paraphrasing, quoting, or other means of referencing. In the not-too-distant future, students may even link to streaming files rather than to static text.
3. Complete Exercise 2 in the textbook and post a slide presentation online. Ask students to research the standard research methods in their fields, list and explain each method in a slide presentation, and post their presentations online (as an attachment to a discussion thread or as an assignment post in WebCT, Blackboard, or some other class tool that you have available). Require each student to view another student’s presentation and to post a review of that presentation.
• Langley Technical Reports Server (http://techreports.larc.nasa.gov/ltrs/ltrs.html)
• Documentation: Citing Sources of Borrowed Information (http://www.io.com/~hcexres/tcm1603/acchtml/docu.html)
• Rutgers University, WIRE: Empirical Reports in Science, Psychology, Sociology, and Economics (http://wire.rutgers.edu/research_assignments_empirical.html)
• University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries: Library Guide to Finding Empirical Research (http://www.umkc.edu/lib/Instruction/MNLsubjguides/empirical.htm)
• Daryl J. Bem, Cornell University, Writing an Empirical Journal Article (http://comp9.psych.cornell.edu/dbem/writing_article.html)
You may wish to reproduce the following worksheets for use in class or as homework.
Planning for Empirical Research Reports
Discuss and fill in the characteristics. Note that you may not always find absolute answers.
Characteristic Applied to Empirical Research Report
Audience Experience & Education
Elements of Format
Elements of Design
Style of Writing
Method(s) of Documentation
Ways to Establish & Ensure Credibility
Troubleshooting for Empirical Research Reports
Think critically about each section. What key issues will contribute to the report’s success?
Report Section Critical Issues
Introduction & Literature Review
Materials & Methods
Acknowledgments & References
Sample Empirical Research Assignment (1 Page)
To: Technical Writing Students
Re: Request for Mini-Empirical Research Report
Most students obviously don’t have the time or other resources to complete a fully formed empirical research report. However, the skills used in such reports are critical across most fields. Below are the specifications and request for a mini-empirical research report. This will provide a similar experience but on a smaller scale.
You are a student worker for the dean of your college. One day she calls you into her office and shows you a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that says the following: “Studies at UC-Berkeley show that males have a higher rate of degree major changes than females do. The tendency for male college students to change majors more often may indicate that college advisors need to form a concerted effort to help this population make better degree decisions earlier, thereby saving money and grade point averages from being wasted on inappropriate class choices.”
The dean is skeptical about this information and would like to know how it applies here at are our school. Who changes majors most frequently? Who changes majors the highest number of times? She asks you to specially research the topic and put the results in a memo report to her. Depending upon the outcome, she may convey it to other administrators at the school.
Please design a means of testing the Chronicle’s hypothesis that gathers information from at least 25 students at this school, and be prepared to review this research method with strict precision and accuracy. Based on this research, you will write an informal research report that includes these sections: introduction (including background review), methods/materials, results, and discussion. Make sure to use an appropriate writing style, level of detail, and design.
• Gather major-change/gender data on at least 25 students.
• Include all of the sections used in a traditional empirical research report.
• Put this in memo format.
• Use audience-appropriate writing style and tone.
• Use helpful design.
• Include a graphic to help illustrate relationships.
This will be graded according to how well you follow instructions and integrate the information from Chapter 17 of Reporting Technical Information. Make sure to use concrete, clear details in your methods section and to report your results and interpret them ethically. Your report will also be graded on correct memo format, good writing style, helpful design, and useful/clear graphic design and integration.
The figure on the following pages may be reproduced as overhead transparencies or simply shown on a computer. The following set of discussion questions associated with the figure may be used to elicit student reflections on the concepts.
Discussion Questions for Figure 15-1
• How might empirical research reports be used in your future profession?
• What sorts of ethical issues are attendant upon researching and presenting these reports?
Structure of Empirical Research Reports
• Abstract (Summary)
• Arguably the most important section
• Should be able to replace the report for readers who will not read the report
• Must clearly state purpose and results of the report
• Statement and importance of problem
• May be combined with the literature review and the purpose statement
• Gives the subject, scope, significance, and objectives of the research
• Literature Review
• What is known about the topic
• Summary of relevant research with parenthetical citations
• May be combined with the introduction and the purpose statement
• Should support the objectives of the research, why the research is needed, what gap this research will fill in solving the problem
• States purpose of the current empirical research report
• May be combined with the introduction and the literature review
• Materials and Methods
• Should allow researchers to duplicate research
• Helps build credibility
• May include the following:
• Design of the investigation
• Materials used
• Procedure—how you conducted the research
• Methods used for observation, analysis, and interpretation
• Should coordinate clearly and precisely with the Methods section
• Outcomes should be tied to procedure
• Analysis of results
• May be incorporated in Results section or may be a separate section
• Summarizes what the research yielded
• May be incorporated in the discussion
• Needs to focus on accuracy, any limitations of findings, and any questions that need further investigation
• Allows writer to assess the experiment and suggest further research
• Acknowledgments and References
• Acknowledgments note the help of individuals who worked on the research
• Acknowledgments may occur in footnotes or in a section at the end of the report
• Any resources mentioned in the report should have full citations in the Reference section
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