Carving out steps in a research paper assignment.

10 11 2010

The headline at the “Huffington Post” says “College Students Don’t Know How To Research, Study Shows,” but that’s not what the article says at all:

The study, which surveyed 8,353 students from 25 colleges, reports that 84 percent of respondents found “getting started” to be the hardest part of research projects. Additional problem areas include defining a topic, narrowing it, and sorting through results — 66 percent, 62 percent and 61 percent of students found these steps to be the most difficult, respectively.

According to How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age,students engage in “risk-averse” research, in which they “use an information-seeking and research strategy driven by efficiency and predictability for managing and controlling all of the information available to them on college campuses” — a method which, while it may allow students to earn passing grades, goes against the inherently exploratory nature of university level research.

The problem is not that college students don’t know how to do research. The problem is that they don’t know how to process the research that they do. That is a very different, and totally solvable problem.

I’ve been on top of this for a while now as I am currently teaching both our undergraduate and graduate research seminars. When you have single papers determining something on the order of 50% to 75% of a final grade, it would be pedagogical misconduct to just say “Go do some research and come back with a paper at the end of the semester. Therefore, I’ve been carving out an increasing number of steps along the way to help students overcome precisely this kind of problem.

Here’s the syllabus for my food course, which is the undergraduate seminar. Click the link of you want to see all the little details, but here’s a summary of my current steps:

Step #1: Choose a topic. Here I repeatedly make the point that you have to do some research before you choose a topic because if you pick something for which know sources exist you’re going to have a really rotten semester.

Step #2: Complete a research prospectus for your project. This will include:

- A question that your research will seek to answer. Asking good questions is essential to get a topic that has historical significance. Also, you don’t want them to devote the whole semester to something that’s blooming obvious.

- A list of primary and secondary sources that you think you might use. I ask for ten at this stage and mention that this is sure to change by the end.

- A brief outline of the topics you might cover over the course of your paper with an explanation of why discussing this topic will help you answer the question that you have set out above. This list too will undoubtedly change by the end of the writing process.

Step #3: It should include all the elements from the first draft, along with:

- A paragraph explaining why you framed your question the way you did.

- A potential thesis.

- Twenty, rather than just ten, potential sources.

- At least a sentence (if not more) under each potential topic for paragraphs in the body of the paper explaining the relationship between that subject and the thesis.

Step #4: A tentative outline of your paper. I don’t require it to be down to the paragraph level, but it should have at least ten components to it and (most importantly), they should be in order.

[I'm actually thinking a second draft of the outline might be a good step for future course-long research assignment, but that'll have to wait 'til the next time I teach seminar.]

Step #5: A draft of the research paper. It must be at least half as long as the final assignment, but obviously the more the better. Yes, requiring drafts makes more work for me, but they arrive via e-mail and I grade them on my computer so it doesn’t seem so bad. More importantly, I get such better papers that way as I tell it like it is. And should someone be upset about the grade at the end, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Step #6: Final paper.

Anybody got any other steps that might help students through their conceptual problems?

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16 11 2010
The hidden advantage of breaking paper assignments into stages. « More or Less Bunk

[...] And as I wrote last week, I’ve gotten to the point where the bigger the assignment the more steps I require. This seems particularly important if your assignment is at all open-ended, since that’s [...]

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