Research Papers

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I teach a class for majors where I expect a research paper. In this particular major, no other classes require research papers, and many do not require papers at all. I have therefore found the students woefully unprepared for a research paper. Papers I have gotten in the past use two to three sources from the library and essentially paraphrase the information. This even from the best students in the class.

I therefore instituted a new series of assignments designed to teach the students how to do a research paper: focus on a core of primary sources, use at least 10 recent secondary sources, engage with the material rather than summarizing what others have said about it, revise your initial draft, write 13-16 pages. I felt I got much better results from this, although some of the papers were still quite poor.

Evaluations, however, bitterly complained. Many of the students felt that this was graduate-level work.

I am very curious. Is what I have outlined too much to expect from undergraduates? How do I teach them to do research papers without making them feel overwhelmed by the process? Giving them more steps and focusing on it more just seemed to make them feel more freaked out about it.

Thank you!

You might try a series of one-page papers with two to three primary sources, etc. that they integrate into a final longer paper (about seven to ten pages). You might also give them the option (after the initial draft, not as part of the syllabus -- yes, it's a trick) to revise the paper, given your feedback. Spend a couple of class days showing them how to make those changes. They will love you for this.

In fact, in one class, I sent out an e-mail asking if anyone wanted to volunteer to have their paper trashed by the class, I told them I would not tell them who the paper was by, but that it was very likely everyone would figure it out, about 1/2 the class volunteered saying they didn't care if everyone knew who it was, so they sent me their papers electronically and I picked out paragraphs and we worked on them in class -- talking about common mistakes, needs, etc.

If you do this with humor and dignity, they can handle it. You also want to tell them that you really, really want them to, and know that they can, learn this. That way they see you on their side, not as the adversary. This is what's worked for me; maybe some of these ideas will work for you.

I would not assign a 13- to 16-page paper with that many sources for an undergraduate class unless it was a senior-thesis course where writing the paper was the focus of the course.

If no other course in the major requires a research paper, then that suggests you are making too big a jump. Students are going from never having written a research paper to one that is very extensive.

Look to see what writing they have done in other courses in their major and then have them go to the next level of their writing. You can make your assignment more extensive than the others they have encountered, but I do not think it helps anyone to have the assignment be way beyond what they have done. That usally leads to students feeling overwhelmed, incompetent, and resentful.

I hate to say it, but there seems to be a rising tide of disdain of hard work and good old-fashioned rigor in colleges these days. What you are assigning is appropriate for undergraduate work -- in fact, even for high school work!

I teach in a master's program and I get the same sort of comments on my evaluations. However, I would rather be known for being tough than have a reputation as the "fun" teacher.
The trend these days is to get by with the least amount of effort. This is a devaluation of education, and I trace this attitude to the market mentality of what it means to go to college. Students essentially see the professor as a barrier to what they want: a diploma in exchange for money.

Since K-12 schools emphasize college as a fast track to a good career (and little else), most students don't view higher education as personally fulfilling. If it can't be used, they don't want to bother with it.

No, I don't think so. I teach in a comprehensive public university, which means that many of my students still struggle mightily with their writing and research. Partly for this reason, when I assign research papers, I do as you did -- i.e., I break the paper down into several components.

Typically, I require a short research statement/proposal, a narrative bibliography (I have found that just assigning an annotated bibiliography doesn't get the typical student to think much about the sources he/she is finding), a rough draft, and a final version. I generally require students to make an oral presentation on both their research statement and rough draft.

It's a lot of work, and some students are not happy about it. Few students have complained, however, that I am asking them to do graduate-level work. If they do (and I have heard this complaint about my standards of evaluation), I simply explain to them that, if they were graduate students, I would already expect them to know how to carry out a research project, so all the various steps would be unnecessary.

There is perhaps one difference between you and me: I already have a reputation among my department's students for requiring a lot of work; most students, therefore, have some sense of what to expect before they even set foot in my class. If you have just made the switch, students might just be put out because they didn't expect to do so much.


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