8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers
by Dorothy Mikuska
There are plenty of reasons why the research paper is not assigned. They pretty much boil down to:
- perceived irrelevance of the assignment in light of modern publishing and technology
- widespread plagiarism
- teachers buried alive grading 10-page papers from 150 students (that’s 1500 pages to grade, not just read).
Before the research paper is declared dead and deleted from the curriculum in pursuit of briefer and more tech-based learning, here are 8 important reasons why students should still write research papers.
8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers
1. Complex Reading Skills Are Applied to Multiple Sources
The research paper requires close reading of complex text from multiple sources, which students must comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. These tasks, more sophisticated than merely summarizing an article for a report, reflect the complex work demands of college and career.
2. It Creates A Research Mind Set
Research is finding answers to questions: how many teeth does a killer whale have—Google will give the number 52. Real research deals with deeper and broader issues than finding isolated facts. Students must learn to think of research as investigating profound and complex issues.
3. It Can Promote Curiosity
From early childhood, curiosity drives the search to understand increasingly complex questions, to constantly question information, and to explore more sources and experts. The research paper provides a structured, yet independent opportunity for students to pursue in depth some extended aspect of the course content.
4. The Librarian Can Be A Life-Long Resource
Students often see librarians merely at the check-out desk or collecting fines. Librarians are specialists at both accessing extensive sources from a variety of media and reinforcing the teaching of responsible use of information and technology. Because they work with students every day and are the center of the school’s curriculum, they can direct students to appropriate sources. As a researcher’s best buddy, librarians are gatekeepers and trackers of information and can turn every question into a teachable moment.
5. The Power of Attribution
Undocumented information that students encounter online—social media postings, tweets, blogs and popular media—artificially narrows their experience to opinions and anonymous writers. Students never see citations on a tweet or a bibliographical reference in People magazine. Research conducted in the career world requires not just expert information, but the attribution of sources through in-text citations and bibliographies. As students use sources that model research material with annotations and bibliography, they develop a questioning mindset: who said that, where did that come from, and where can I find more?
6. It Builds Related Skills
Unskilled researchers collect downloaded files and perhaps highlight passages, sometimes indiscriminately whole paragraphs or pages, without understanding the text. This method may work for a cursory summary of an article or for identifying key points, but not for synthesizing information from ten sources for an in-depth report.
File formats can make annotating text awkward. Even if notes can be easily added in the text, students will struggle scrolling through multiple files to synthesize scattered information, resulting in a collection of summaries from each source rather than an integrated understanding of the topic.
Formal note taking, necessary for extended and rigorous research papers, keeps track of information as quotations and paraphrases, identifies the unique content of each note, connects it to other notes with keywords, and identifies the source that can be cited in the paper and added to the bibliography.
An added value of note taking lies in the learning process. By reviewing notes with the same keywords, students can synthesize the material into an organized plan for the paper.
7. Plagiarism and Intellectual Property Rights Matter
Because of plagiarism’s prevalence in student work, it may be easier not to assign research papers. However, plagiarism and intellectual property rights issues, whether related to research papers or music and video piracy, need to be a major conversation throughout the curriculum.
Students do not understand what plagiarism is, its consequences to their learning and character, why everyone makes a big deal over it, and how to avoid it. While direct instruction teaches what plagiarism is, students must put into practice ethical research writing. The research paper process provides students and teachers the opportunity to discuss intellectual property rights and ethics as part of the assignment.
8. Coaching The Writing Process Is Powerful
The research paper is not just an assignment, but a commitment to continual dialog between teachers and students. Teachers as research paper coaches can explore their students’ understanding, interpretation, and synthesis of their reading, discuss their choice of sources and note taking strategies, evaluate their work incrementally, and model ethical paraphrasing and summary skills.
The research paper can be frightening, even paralyzing for some students with little or disappointing previous experiences. Teachers as coaches can make students feel comfortable taking control of the conversation and believing their voice and work are important.
By personalizing instruction to ensure student success throughout the process, and by students taking control of their work because they have important information to report, students are eager to share what they have learned. Poorly researched papers with little to say are poorly written or plagiarized. Coached students will write papers that their teachers will want to read.
The Research Paper in the Information Age
The research paper is about information found, understood, and explained to others, a way to authentically extend the course content and purpose.
The private and public sectors consume and create carefully written research. Feasibility studies, like the possibility of marketing sausage casings in India, laboratory or field research, inquiries to determine educational, political, or banking policies—all are formats of the research paper that organizations use to make critical decisions. Before reporting new information, published reports with requisite citations and bibliography begin with what experts have already contributed to the issue.
Since this is the intellectual milieu our students will enter after graduation, they should be prepared for the complex reading, research, thinking, and writing skills they will need.
Dorothy Mikuska taught high school English including the research paper for 37 years. After retirement she formed ePen&Inc and created PaperToolsPro, software for students to employ the literacy skills of slow, reflective reading needed to write good research papers; 8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers; image attribution flickr user samladner
Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as collegeinstructorshategradingpapers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utterwasteof their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellowhumanistsinsist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic),and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Students hate writing papers, and professors hate grading them. Should we stop assigning them? Listen to the debate on Slate Plus.
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.