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Thread: the dreaded research paper

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    the dreaded research paper

    I teach at a two-year school with open enrollment and find that the research paper is the students' greatest fear. And as far as teaching, it is one of mine as well. Does anyone have any ideas, links, handouts, instruction, strategy--anything! that may help in actually teaching these students the purpose of the research paper, how to write one, and what their main goal is? After graduate school, I am well aware of what a research paper is and I can write one. But when it comes to teaching it, things seem to unravel for me. I would say that it is the weakest area of my teaching. Little help? Thanks in advance.

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    Hello Sinclair, welcome to LitNet I'm not a teacher so have no applicable advice but as you peruse the fora you will soon see that there are many students here and some fellow teachers too! who deal with these very issues and maybe they will give you some feedback.
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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    What grade are you teaching? Also, is the student's problem the research itself or the actual writing of the paper (or both). If the problem in the research element, then maybe to start, if it's their first research paper, you can do guided reseach (teach the students how to pick up key points in articles, books, etc). What you can try as well is, as a class, try guiding them to model a research paper. Find an interesting article, or different exerpts about a certain topic, as a class read through them, then ask quesions that get the students to answer questions about the topic, picking up the key ideas. You can get them, as a class, to create a model outline of a possible paper that they could write on the subject, demonstrating to them that the purpose of a research essay (as far as I know) is to extrapolate and outline key ideas about a certain topic.


    I hope this helps somewhat.Best of luck.

    -Charles Darnay
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    Seeker of Knowledge Shannanigan's Avatar
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    I'm a writing tutor at my college's Writing Center, and my college is an open-enrollment college, too . The students here equate writing a research paper to finding a cure for cancer, so we get a lot of panicky students coming in looking for help with it.

    Before I do my little speech on how I guide them through, I would recommend a book called "Writers Inc." or "Write for College." I can't remember who they're by, but they are little black books that contain chapters on how to write argumentative, narrative, research, and other types of essays. I find them very helpful.

    Now, as for me, students come in absolutely appauled that they have to write a 10-page research paper for this required freshman course we have here. Most have never written more than three or four pages, and many have never written a formal essay at all. First, I make sure they have a specific enough topic, and I try to get them to think of three, four, or five main points they want to make, depending on the length of the paper. (If the student is assigned a topic they know nothing about, then I usually have them Google search or use Wikipedia to start getting ideas).

    One girl came in recently and said she had been assigned to write about the importance of sugar production in Grenada. The paper had to be at least 7 pages. I asked her if she could think of four main points she would like to make. She said she would want to talk about the history, meaning how, why, and when sugar production first started and the results, and she also wanted ot talk about how today sugar production's importance has become very small, since other products and tourism are brining in more money.

    So, I tell her that she's got two points so far, and that it seems like the history should be the first point she makes and the point about today's lack of importance should be the last point, to keep things simple. I told her she needed to think of at least two more points about things that happened involving sugar production between when it first started and now...like were there any droughts, slave rebellions, taxes, or other events that affected the production? She said she didn't know, so I told her to do some research (again, this is a whole other skill that may need to be taught as well) and come back.

    When she comes back, she'll hopefully have at least two more points, and we can start to outline. I'll use a pen and paper to give a space for the intro, main point 1 (history), main point 2 (something she found), main point 3 (another thing she found), main point 4 (today's lack of importance), and the conclusion. More main points can be added if she found more. Now we start filling in under each point...give some details about the history and other main points under each one.

    Now that she's got a rough outline, I'll tell her to try to think of her huge 7 page paper as really 4 one and a half page papers. Everyone feels like they can write a page and a half. If she writes an intro, a page and a half on each point, and a conclusion, she should come to about seven pages. This, again, needs guidance...but I'm sure by now you're catching the drift of how it gets done. Students really tend to feel better when I tell them to break the paper down into smaller chunks; and the outline often makes them feel more confident.

    In all, this is something that isn't taught in a day. You might spend a day brainstorming topics to write about, send them home to research, come back and have them think up 3-5 points, send them home to write up details, use class again to formalize and tidy up outlines, send them home to draft, do peer reviews and such in class, then get a formal paper and see what you can do. The best thing one of my professors ever did was make each stage worth a grade: coming up with a topic was a grade, writing up a works cited with 3 sources was the second grade, writing the main points another grade, then the outline, then the draft, etc. Teaching them MLA format for in-text citations and works cited pages along the way can be tought, but is obviously important to enforce early on or else they may fall in to bad habits...

    I'm sure you can Google some resources, but I sure hope this helps. Good luck!
    You learn more about a road by travelling it than by consulting all of the maps in the world.

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    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Hi Sinclair--As Charles Darnay says above, it would help if we had a better idea of what age you're teaching. I've done a little college teaching (though I'm just starting out) and I suppose my freshmen are fairly close to highschool, so I'll assume that some of what works for them might also be adaptable to younger students in some way. I've noticed at the very beginning college level that it's helpful to really give them a lot rather than just tell them what to do and set them loose in the library. If possible you might want to start with a special session in the school library in which you or a librarian really walk them through what resources your library has and how to use them (even freshmen in college sometimes need a little help with even such seemingly basic things as doing a productive search in the library catalogue and finding call numbers).

    I would also compile a bibliography of books available at your school and/or local library (or internet sources which you find acceptable) which you think are pertinent to the topics you're asking the students to research and appropriate for their level, and which you could either pass out as a recommended reading list or refer to for making reading recommendations in individual consultations with students about their project. If your students are true novices at using secondary material it may well be enough of a task for them to sort through your recommended list, pick a book, find it at the library and incorporate it in the paper (the last being no small part of the challenge). If part of what you want them to do is not just use the library but spend some time rooting about in the stacks you could possibly tell them that they have the option to use one source from the recommended list, but a second source must be one they find on their own (though, particularly if you're teaching highschool, I suppose that could depend upon whether your bibliography exhausts the offerings of your library ).

    Regardless of whether you offer a bibliography or not, I would also be very specific about how many and what kinds of sources you want them to use. Is one secondary source enough? Two? Three? Do you want them to look at whole books? Articles? Do you want one biographical and one critical source? Only critical sources? Historical background? (you might want to go over what the difference between these secondary sources are). Sometimes being very specific about the kind of sources you want helps make it easier to see how to use them in a paper. For example (to take a recent assignment from my own teaching) you may want them to do something like look at historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and compare the real history with Shakespeare's account in Richard III, or you might specify that you'd like them to look at critical work analysing the poetry of one of the speeches in Richard III. Even if they're coming up with their own topics, it's good to give them examples of what kind of research you're looking for. They're going to understand why they're looking for this secondary material better if they see a direct purpose for it (to understand the historical context of a play, to get a scholar's opinion about the way Shakespeare uses poetry, or with other authors perhaps you want them to address biographical background and the way the author's life is associated with his/her work). I'd also be very clear about what your policy is on internet sources and possibly limit those, since the temptation of wikipedia is almost irresistable.

    Finally, it's also helpful sometimes to break the process of research down into detailed step by step instructions the way Shannanigan has already suggested. In terms of explaining to students how to incorporate secondary material into their writing, I've also found it helpful to encourage them to think about the reading they do in their research in terms of having had conversations with the authors of the secondary material. This is especially useful if they're looking at literary criticism. Instead of viewing the crit. as a text that they have to somehow relate to the work they're writing on, I tell them to imagine that the critical work they've read is a conversation they've had with the author of the book or article about the subject. Now the paper they're writing is a conversation they're having with me, and they get to refer back to what the other person said by quoting him/her when they're trying to get their own points across to me. This seems to get them thinking about secondary material as a helpful dialogue rather than some weird thing they're supposed to work in somehow. Anyway, hope some of this is of help, or perhaps sparks a helpful idea. Best of luck. Let us know if you strike on any useful strategems yourself, since I'm sure we could all use suggestions on how to make research more painless for both teacher and student.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
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    Sorry fopr the delayed reply--haven't been on in a while. Anyhoo, the students range from right out of high school to early thirties and it would be safe to assume that they have done very little--if any--of this type of writing. I appreciate all the info. I actually broke up the assignment (produce research, annotated bib, outline, final paper). However, it did not help in a lot of cases. I found several instances of plagiarism. I foud that when they sat to actually write the paper, they ignored their research and went to the internet, so they "would not have to read all the stuff they found."

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by sinclair1 View Post
    I teach at a two-year school with open enrollment and find that the research paper is the students' greatest fear. And as far as teaching, it is one of mine as well. Does anyone have any ideas, links, handouts, instruction, strategy--anything! that may help in actually teaching these students the purpose of the research paper, how to write one, and what their main goal is? After graduate school, I am well aware of what a research paper is and I can write one. But when it comes to teaching it, things seem to unravel for me. I would say that it is the weakest area of my teaching. Little help? Thanks in advance.
    perhaps your weakness is not so much a reflection of a lack in your ability, but an indication that the notion that the research paper has an intrinsic value to student learning is fundamentally flawed.
    "He was nauseous with regret when he saw her face again, and when, as of yore, he pleaded and begged at her knees for the joy of her being. She understood Neal; she stroked his hair; she knew he was mad."
    ---Jack Kerouac, On The Road: The Original Scroll

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    Pre-Raphaelite Look Alike ~*Dark Faerie*~'s Avatar
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    Red face

    Quote Originally Posted by sinclair1 View Post
    Sorry fopr the delayed reply--haven't been on in a while. Anyhoo, the students range from right out of high school to early thirties and it would be safe to assume that they have done very little--if any--of this type of writing. I appreciate all the info. I actually broke up the assignment (produce research, annotated bib, outline, final paper). However, it did not help in a lot of cases. I found several instances of plagiarism. I foud that when they sat to actually write the paper, they ignored their research and went to the internet, so they "would not have to read all the stuff they found."
    Though I wouldn't claim to be much help in this department, to me (though I may just be stating the obvious) it seems it all comes down to how do you teach someone who just doesn't want to learn? These are adults who have been wired to fear this type of paper; I don't know exactly how they're fearing something they have no experience with--no opportunity to have a past bad experience. For the present the only advice I would have is something you've already done--break it down into steps outlining, final draft etc. I would have expected that to work. The ultimate motivator for me as a student is when I get to pick my subject, something I'm passionate about, although that is not always a possible choice.
    "The elements themselves do not endure;
    Examine how they change and learn from me...
    Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
    Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
    Contrives. In all creation, trust me,
    There is no death -- no death, but only change
    And innovation; what we men call birth
    Is but a different new beginning; death
    Is but to cease to be the same..."
    --Ovid, Metamorphosis


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    Professional Crastinator Hyacinth42's Avatar
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    Well, I guess I am weird, because the research paper has always been my favorite paper What is their research paper on? I've had one on current issues, one on vietnam, two on a disease (each one about a different one), and right now one on Dracula (honestly, the sacrilege of making us do a reasearch paper on a book). It helps if you actually like the topic, however, it sucks when you can pick whatever you want, because then you can't decide .

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    Suzerain of Cost&Caution SleepyWitch's Avatar
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    hey sinclair...
    about plagiarism: i suppose your students aren't taking this course because they want to be the greatest intellectuals of all times, but because they need a degree in order to get a better job???
    so the world of academia is new territory to them. they probably aren't aware that plagiarism is intellectual theft and that there a special rules and a special code of conduct withing academia?
    maybe it helps if you make it clear to them that stealing somebody's ideas is the same as stealing someones car. you could have a group discussion about that

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love
    Regardless of whether you offer a bibliography or not, I would also be very specific about how many and what kinds of sources you want them to use. Is one secondary source enough? Two? Three? Do you want them to look at whole books? Articles? Do you want one biographical and one critical source? Only critical sources? Historical background? (you might want to go over what the difference between these secondary sources are). Sometimes being very specific about the kind of sources you want helps make it easier to see how to use them in a paper. For example (to take a recent assignment from my own teaching) you may want them to do something like look at historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and compare the real history with Shakespeare's account in Richard III, or you might specify that you'd like them to look at critical work analysing the poetry of one of the speeches in Richard III. Even if they're coming up with their own topics, it's good to give them examples of what kind of research you're looking for. They're going to understand why they're looking for this secondary material better if they see a direct purpose for it (to understand the historical context of a play, to get a scholar's opinion about the way Shakespeare uses poetry, or with other authors perhaps you want them to address biographical background and the way the author's life is associated with his/her work). I'd also be very clear about what your policy is on internet sources and possibly limit those, since the temptation of wikipedia is almost irresistable.
    i think this is a very good idea.
    i took a course about how to write a term paper for Geography once and the professor told us exactly how many books and articles to use. it worked out quite well.

    edit: you could also draw their attention to how we often cite our sources in everyday conversation, e.g. when we say "I read in the paper..." or "I heard...on the radio" or "My granny said...". citing your sources in a research paper is not much different, is it?

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    its just fear

    My own experience is that much of the 'fear' in a research paper is like 'fear' anywhere - it comes from the unknown.

    Students who have never written more than 1 page before are forced to think about writing 50 pages, who have never read more than 20-30 pages of assigned reading before now must read 20-30 books for their paper, etc.

    It is partially something that the student himself must overcome.

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    The Story of My Life bibliophile190's Avatar
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    Well, as a student myself, I find that the hardest part is just getting started. Taking that first step is difficult for me because I'm afraid that I'll drown in the information. I find that as long as the teacher takes the time to help get a class started on it, it's much easier, for me at least. Of course, I don't know what advice to give on students who just don't care, or plagerise. Personally, I have no patience for them, and figure they deserve to work in a McDonalds the rest of their life, if their not going to even try. That's probably why it's a good thing I'm not planning to be a teacher. My patience level is not especially high.

  13. #13
    ysturgeon
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    help is here

    I have a website for my classroom with a link you may find helpful. I have taught the research paper component for several years now, and have both a packet of information (senior project based), as well as general notes for my students when writing. Go to the site below and check the link on the left "SPRP"- hope this gives you some helpful info...
    http://edtech.nmusd.us:8080/p_home.asp?tid=749

    or go to Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, CA homepage and go to teacher website for Yvonne Sturgeon

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    Quote Originally Posted by sinclair1 View Post
    The students range from right out of high school to early thirties and it would be safe to assume that they have done very little--if any--of this type of writing. I appreciate all the info. I actually broke up the assignment (produce research, annotated bib, outline, final paper). However, it did not help in a lot of cases. I found several instances of plagiarism. I foud that when they sat to actually write the paper, they ignored their research and went to the internet, so they "would not have to read all the stuff they found."
    You obviously are teaching it well with that breaking down of the assignment, so don't put any blame on yourself; yes, it is new to many of them, and they just have to dig in and get gritty, make some mistakes, and do the best they can. You could also xerox a quality paper for them all to use as a model. I have dealt with hundreds of them, and the other day I got an email from a prior student who wonders if I still have a copy so they, no doubt, can re-use it for a current class. You have to impress upon them that this is "basic" college work that they will be doing repeatedly for the next 4+ years, so it's something to start to acclimatize with because this writing structure is not going away anytime soon. It seems a mammoth thing to them and they just need to attack it.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by byquist View Post
    You obviously are teaching it well with that breaking down of the assignment, so don't put any blame on yourself; yes, it is new to many of them, and they just have to dig in and get gritty, make some mistakes, and do the best they can. You could also xerox a quality paper for them all to use as a model. I have dealt with hundreds of them, and the other day I got an email from a prior student who wonders if I still have a copy so they, no doubt, can re-use it for a current class. You have to impress upon them that this is "basic" college work that they will be doing repeatedly for the next 4+ years, so it's something to start to acclimatize with because this writing structure is not going away anytime soon. It seems a mammoth thing to them and they just need to attack it.

    shouldn't students know the ABC's of research and writing by the time they reach college? i think it's terrific sinclair is taking the time and effort to guide students along the process, but at what point does the system recognize that some students will not get it and deserve not to be in college? "acclimatizing" is just a euphemism for coddling lazy students who simply have little interest in putting in the requisite hours of study time, period.
    "He was nauseous with regret when he saw her face again, and when, as of yore, he pleaded and begged at her knees for the joy of her being. She understood Neal; she stroked his hair; she knew he was mad."
    ---Jack Kerouac, On The Road: The Original Scroll

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