ENGLISH 101.  ACADEMIC WRITING
SAMPLE RESEARCH NARRATIVE
for Elizabeth Gutchess' sections of English 101, 
shown here for illustration only


Process for writing a research narrative (for Dr. E's course)

(1) Browse very current magazines and journals.
(2) Find an article about current research that grabs your attention.
(3) Read the article carefully, and jot down the main points of interest.
(4) Also jot down questions the article leaves with you; they are directions to investigate.
(5) Search our college databases to find articles that might answer your questions. Let your curiosity go in any direction. This part of the assignment is purely exploratory.
(6) Keep a record of the process you use: your questions, your search terms, what you discover in the first article you find, what you discover in the second article you find, and so forth.
(7) Write a narrative essay recording these experiences. 


“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called ‘research,’ would it?” Albert Einstein

Sample Research-Narrative Essay by Elizabeth Gutchess
(first three sources)

      A cover story in Time last May grabbed my attention. Claudia Wallace's “Secrets of the Teen Brain” completely surprised me with some of its facts. First, researchers have discovered that the brain doesn’t fully mature until people are in their mid-twenties. Second, even though the brain continues to develop until that age, it actually contains its maximum number of brain cells before birth.  Pre-natally, there’s a wild proliferation of brain cells, followed by an actual pruning of cells.

     Third, it has been discovered that the brain undergoes another sequence of growth-and-pruning before it fully matures, during childhood and adolescence. In this sequence, however, the things that grow wildly and then get thinned out aren’t cells but the connections between them, the synapses. The synapses multiply like crazy between the ages of six and twelve; they get “bushier,” growing the “branch-like” projections (the dendrites) that connect them to other cells. The pruning of dendrites starts at about age 12, and as the connections are thinned out, the surviving ones become more efficient. Their coating or insulation gets thicker, establishing fewer but faster pathways.

     One last surprising thing in Wallis' article is that this final phase of brain development moves from the back of the brain to the front.  The forming of fewer but faster pathways starts in the so-called sensory cortex, then proceeds to the motor cortex. The very last region of the brain to mature is the frontal cortex, site of the so-called executive functions--the ability to plan, to organize ideas, to prioritize, to curb impulses, and to weigh consequences. Wallace ends her article with advice to parents of teens: stay involved with them and keep in touch! 

     While I learned new things about brain science while reading this article, it also left me wondering if these new findings contain any messages for educators, specifically for teachers of academic writing (like me).  So I accessed the ProQuest database and searched under the terms neuron, axon, teaching and writing.  Although I didn’t find any articles applying this research to my own field, I did find an article by Debbie Craig called “Brain Compatible Learning: Applications to Athletic Training.”  This article seemed really informative, so I read it carefully and enjoyed learning more.   

     First, Craig explains that “[i]n the past decade, new brain-imaging techniques have allowed us to observe the brain while it is learning,” but the job of applying these findings to education has just begun.  Second, she gives a quick overview of how the brain acquires new knowledge. Put very simply, each brain cell, each neuron, has projections (called dendrites) that receive information from another cell, and a projection, called the axon, which passes that information on to another cell. “Frequent transmissions of information between particular cells can establish a permanent relationship between them.” In other words, simple repetition creates neural pathways. The obvious message in this for teachers and students alike is that repetition is a powerful tool for the creation of memory; in the words of one researcher, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent.”

     A third important point made by Craig is this: the brain is “designed” to create these pathways, or patterns of connectivity within itself, and it’s also designed to perceive patterns in the outside world. But it resists absorbing patterns that are meaningless to it, patterns that don’t relate to pathways it has already created within itself. The major implication for teachers, then, is the necessity of tying new knowledge to whatever a student already knows. 

     Reading Craig’s article gave me a good review of a few of the basics of neuroscience, but I wanted to know more about learning capabilities, especially in the adult brain. So I went back to ProQuest and used the search terms neuron, axon, adults, and learning. Immediately, I found an article by Sharon Begley called “Survival of the Busiest” originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

     Begley examines the conventional wisdom that the brain hard-wired: that it doesn’t change, so if an area is damaged, the cognitive losses are permanent.  This old idea is being questioned questioned in recent research.  “The brain is much more adaptable and renewable than previously thought," she writes, "and that’s true throughout life.”

     The first clues that the brain might be able to change significantly even in adulthood has come from experiments with monkeys. “When lab monkeys practiced--and practiced--the trick of using a single finger to reach into a tiny dish and grab a morsel of food, the brain region devoted to fine motor control of that finger grew liked suburban sprawl. And these were grown-up monkeys.”  Even "the adult brain is ‘plastic,’ able to forge new connections among its neurons and thus rewire itself….  Regions that get the most use literally expand…. [Y]ou can call it survival of the busiest.”

     After describing several experiments that have shown brain rewiring in human subjects, Begley closes her article with the most dramatic new finding of all. We can rewire our adult brains not only with physical activity but merely by thinking of that activity. In a study at Harvard, “one group of volunteers practiced a five-finger piano exercise, and a comparable group merely [thought] about practicing it.” Researchers found that “[m]erely thinking about moving produce[d] brain changes comparable to those triggered by actually moving.”

     Begley concludes by saying “The brain is dynamic, and the life we lead leaves its mark in the complex circuitry of the brain--footprints of the experiences we have had, the thoughts we have thought, the actions we have taken.  The brain allocates neural real estate depending on what we use most: the thumb of a videogame addict, the index finger of a Braille reader, the analytic ability of a chess player, the language of a linguist. But the brain also remakes itself based on something much more ephemeral than what we do: It rewires itself based on what we think. This will be the next frontier for neuroplasticity, harnessing the transforming power of the mind to reshape the brain.” 

     To sum up, here are the main things I learned from these searches: first, it takes a much longer time for people to mature neurologically than I thought possible; second, the chemistry of learning is an important subject for educators and students; and third, learning itself is a life-long adventure. In George Elliot’s words, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

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Works Cited

 Begley, Sharon. “Survival of the Busiest.”  Wall Street Journal 11 Oct. 2002: B1.

 Craig, Debbie I.  “Brain-Compatible Learning: Principles and Applications in Athletic Training.”  Journal of Athletic Training 38.4 (2003): 342-350.  

 Wallis, Claudia.  “Secrets of the Teen Brain:  What Makes Teens Tick.”  Time 10 May 2004: 56-65.


Variations

What if YOUR second article DOESN'T answer the questions raised by that first article?

Well, just RECORD that fact. Such an essay might read

''Last Saturday, in Newsweek, I saw a short article about [such and such] by [so and so]. [Here, you’d give a summary of the article’s main points.]

Wanting to know more about [such and such] , and using the search terms ______, _______ , and ___________ , I went to the ProQuest database and found another article about [such and such] which revealed the following: . . . .

Then, wanting to know still more, and using the search terms _______ , _______ , and _______ , I searched once again and found out these other factors . . . .

Now, I’ve begun to conclude that . . . .'' [Or, you might say something like this: ''The main points I've learned from these searches are three: ______ , _______ , and ______.'']

To sum up, your narrative should record your own search experiences, so I can't forecast or dictate how that will go for you. Don't feel that you have to spend a hundred hours finding exact answers to the questions that your original article might have raised. If you CAN'T find answers, then say that, and just tell your readers what you DID find.

One last point: Notice that your thesis will come at the END of your essay, not the beginning. Most academic papers START with the thesis or main idea and then support it. I'd like you to use this essay to experience the way an academic thesis GROWS out of the data collected in the research.


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