Carnegie Mellon University

Writing from Sources: Authority in Text and Task

Author: Stuart Greene
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1990

The purpose of this study was to increase understanding of how different writing-to-learn tasks invite, even authorize, the ways in which students construct meaning in writing from sources. The tasks used in this study, writing either a report or a problem-based essay, required students to integrate prior knowledge with information from six textual sources in order to construct their own texts. The 15 undergraduates, enrolled in a seminar on European history, were randomly assigned to one of two task conditions, report or problem.

Comparisons were made between the ways in which the two groups interpreted the tasks they were given, and how they organized and selected content from the sources. For insights into how writers approached these two tasks, all students provided think-aloud protocols and reading-writing logs. Students' essays were analyzed for origin of information (i.e., whether it was from the sources or generated from prior knowledge), appeals to authority, importance of information included, and top- level structure. Comparisons were also made to examine possible differences in learning associated with the two tasks.

Analyses showed that the groups differed significantly in their interpretations of the two tasks and in their approaches to restructuring textual information. Analyses also revealed that students writing problem- based essays included significantly more content units in their essays than students writing reports. However, students did not differ significantly in the ways in which they selected source information. Both task groups selected information on a basis of intertextual importance (i.e., repeated information), and they tended to use authorities in the field as sources of information rather than as resources for supporting their own arguments. Though there were no significant differences in learning between the two groups, both groups experienced significant qualitative changes in knowledge.

The study extends theoretical work in discourse synthesis and discourse production. It suggests that authority can be linked to the transformations writers make in composing from sources as they interweave content from prior knowledge with source information and restructure meaning. Authority can also come from writers' awareness of how to apply their knowledge flexibly and effectively in a given rhetorical situation.