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