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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Make Writing Research Papers Relevant for Students

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

In my last post, "Preparing High School Seniors for College," I outlined the College Success Portfolio, a performance-assessment system used at Envision Schools. We developed this system because we believe students demonstrate college readiness not only by passing rigorous courses but also by actually producing college-ready academic work, demonstrating 21st-century leadership skills, and mastering college-level work habits.

In this post, and subsequent posts, I will describe the actual standards-based project learning found in the College Success Portfolio, and illustrate examples for you.

All college students can be assured that they will write a few 10- to 12-page academic research papers during their undergraduate program in college. Unfortunately, most high school seniors graduate from high school without ever producing one long academic research paper.

Envision students are required to produce at least one research paper a year beginning in the ninth grade. The paper might be assigned in any of the academic courses; it is not just a task for English class. In the ninth and tenth grades, the assignment has a tight scaffold so they learn each step of the process: choosing sources, taking research notes, paraphrasing, outlining, writing expository text, and citing properly.

By the time students are juniors and seniors, they are expected to know the steps to create a research paper. The challenge before graduation is to produce a college-ready research paper.

We believe that students will be more engaged and produce more rigorous work when they have context for an assignment. Here is an example of how we built relevance for a research paper in one of our schools:

In a required project called "State of the World," and as part of our world-history curriculum, students study the rise of industrialism and colonialism leading up to World War I. In a joint assignment, the history teacher and English teacher assign a research paper in which students study the perspective of different classes of people -- social, religious, and agricultural, for example -- in specific countries and then write papers summarizing their findings.

In addition, students read and discuss Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, in their English course. Finally, grouped by the country they studied, students produce a short documentary -- complete with the Kens Burns Effect -- that summarizes their findings and conclusions about their country during the particular era.

To conclude the project, the students present their documentaries. In the context of this engaging project, students must also craft an academic research paper that has a purpose -- research for a film. They realize that Ken Burns and other documentary filmmakers need to conduct extensive historical investigations before they even begin to produce a film.

Do you have your students write research papers? Do you have examples of successful research paper assignments that are both rigorous and relevant? Please share.

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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joev's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Research papers. I believe you said that due to state testing and
curriculum etc. research papers have taken a backseat. Might I add that due to drugs, and the moral collapse and emotional and social trash that have infiltraated our society our schools have indeed taken a back seat to education. Think of who kids have as heroes---American idol--yes the TV show, and that is the positive side. The negative side is their drug family. But thanks for teaching the few that are still out there that are decent.

joseph chikaka's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greetings.
Am seeking for support in establishing a primary school.
am from Tanzania, East Africa.
I need your assistance

Aaron Hansen's picture
Aaron Hansen
7th Grade English/ Social Studies teacher from WA

I appreciate that you're final product incorporated 21st century skills. But your title "How to make writing research papers relevant to students" also got me thinking about the changing process of research. When I was in school, research skills meant being able to use the card catalog for the limited books available in our small school library. With the development of the internet and search engines, research was no longer about just matching to info on a card to the right book on the self. We had to be able to sort through volumes of sites and determine what was quality information and what was junk. Then came Wikipedia and we could not just consume but contribute to the collection of information. And now we have Diigo and other social bookmarking tools that allow us to share the valuable resources we find. The highlighting and posit-notes tools allow us to interact with the text, but more importantly it allows you to read what I thought was most important about the page and skip the rest.

So my question is have the projects we assign students also evolved with these new tools? Or are we still asking students to jump through the same hoops? Are we ready to accept that being able to effectively do research (or find information) is no longer a task I do in isolation, but rather something I do within my personal learning network? Granted not all information can be found within our communities and we still need to be proficient at searching the vast oceans of the world wide web for the buried treasures we seek. But it seems to me that social bookmarking is as much of a game changer as search engines were. Perhaps the social nature of this tool will help make research more relevant and engaging for some students than the historical isolated research process of our own educational experiences.

Aaron Hansen's picture
Aaron Hansen
7th Grade English/ Social Studies teacher from WA

I appreciate that you're final product incorporated 21st century skills. But your title "How to make writing research papers relevant to students" also got me thinking about the changing process of research. When I was in school, research skills meant being able to use the card catalog for the limited books available in our small school library. With the development of the internet and search engines, research was no longer about just matching to info on a card to the right book on the self. We had to be able to sort through volumes of sites and determine what was quality information and what was junk. Then came Wikipedia and we could not just consume but contribute to the collection of information. And now we have Diigo and other social bookmarking tools that allow us to share the valuable resources we find. The highlighting and posit-notes tools allow us to interact with the text, but more importantly it allows you to read what I thought was most important about the page and skip the rest.

So my question is have the projects we assign students also evolved with these new tools? Or are we still asking students to jump through the same hoops? Are we ready to accept that being able to effectively do research (or find information) is no longer a task I do in isolation, but rather something I do within my personal learning network? Granted not all information can be found within our communities and we still need to be proficient at searching the vast oceans of the world wide web for the buried treasures we seek. But it seems to me that social bookmarking is as much of a game changer as search engines were. Perhaps the social nature of this tool will help make research more relevant and engaging for some students than the historical isolated research process of our own educational experiences.

Aaron Hansen's picture
Aaron Hansen
7th Grade English/ Social Studies teacher from WA

I appreciate that you're final product incorporated 21st century skills. But your title "How to make writing research papers relevant to students" also got me thinking about the changing process of research. When I was in school, research skills meant being able to use the card catalog for the limited books available in our small school library. With the development of the internet and search engines, research was no longer about just matching to info on a card to the right book on the self. We had to be able to sort through volumes of sites and determine what was quality information and what was junk. Then came Wikipedia and we could not just consume but contribute to the collection of information. And now we have Diigo and other social bookmarking tools that allow us to share the valuable resources we find. The highlighting and posit-notes tools allow us to interact with the text, but more importantly it allows you to read what I thought was most important about the page and skip the rest.

So my question is have the projects we assign students also evolved with these new tools? Or are we still asking students to jump through the same hoops? Are we ready to accept that being able to effectively do research (or find information) is no longer a task I do in isolation, but rather something I do within my personal learning network? Granted not all information can be found within our communities and we still need to be proficient at searching the vast oceans of the world wide web for the buried treasures we seek. But it seems to me that social bookmarking is as much of a game changer as search engines were. Perhaps the social nature of this tool will help make research more relevant and engaging for some students than the historical isolated research process of our own educational experiences.

Jordan's picture

I'm currently going through school to get my degree and certificate and read your post. Recently we had the Invisible Children organization come to my university to raise awareness and funds. I would like to be a Jr. High English teacher and was thinking of how to make research writing interesting - even before reading your post. With the Invisible Children organization fresh in my head I began developing a unit on the subject of child soldiers in Africa. Reading components could consist of "A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier" and we could watch the Invisible Children documentary. The research aspect would be historical as well as temporary - a sort of written documentary of the war in Uganda and the effects on the children there. I considered asking speakers from the organization to come in and share. Also, I thought it would be cool to have the students develop a fundraiser for the organization (obviously a semester/trimester long project) - this would involve developing their communication, time-management, and planning skills. There's more to it, but I'll stop there.

Anyways, basically I just was encouraged by the post to encourage research writing and to have it pertain to the students as a whole, instead of just sending them on an information search and then pumping out a 5 or 6 page paper.

Also, I never really considered how state testing is effecting the "need" for research writing skills (I'm from Washington state). It's very true and very apparent - I think it would be cool to be able to integrate research writing back into the classroom.

Thanks for your encouragement and ideas!

Jeanne's picture

I am teaching a group of students going into the 11th grade at Upward Bound this summer. I assigned a research essay to them as a final project and they told me they had never written an essay like this before. I had to take a step back in my planning and teach them from beginning to end on how to organize and write this essay. This should be taught so much earlier. I feel it is a great learning experience for them as this program prepares students for college. I had high expectations for them and still do but had to adjust my entire plan to help them learn the basics so that they can prepare and write a good essay.

Donna L. Doussard's picture

As a parent of two college-aged students, and a graduate student myself, I am very familiar with writing academic research papers. I would like to share about a very unique school, StoneBridge School in Chesapeake, Virginia, and its method of preparing high school seniors for the rigors of college; especially how to produce a college-ready research paper.

StoneBridge School in Chesapeake, Virginia is a private Christian school that utilizes a method of instruction called The Priniciple Approach. Essentially, StoneBridge students are taught to rely on primary source documents as they research the different subject areas of English, History, Mathematics, etc. Seniors at StoneBridge spend much of their year researching and developing a twenty-five page thesis paper on the topic of their choice. The topic they choose can range from current political issues to advances in the field of medicine, education, or any other field; yet they are developed within the context of a Biblical worldview. Once their thesis is completed, they are required to orally present and defend their thesis in front of a group of faculty, parents, and outside members of the community. Occasionally, their thesis defense is also presented at functions within the larger community and even overseas; as StoneBridge seniors culminate their educational experience with a European missions trip.

Students with this educational experience are definitely prepared for most undergraduate writing assignments and have mastered the work habits necessary to succeed in college. Both my children who are enrolled in public universities in Virginia are successfully handling their classes, writing, and public speaking assignments. For anyone who is interested in learning about this unique style of education, the website is http://stonebridgeschool.com/

Ashly's picture
Ashly
Social Studies Teacher

As a newly certified Social Studies teacher, I find that a number of students do not look beyond the web to find viable resources for their research projects. During one of my student teaching placements I required an eleventh grade American History class to complete a research project on President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Programs and assigned each student a specific program. I asked students to use a 2:1 ratio of their primary resources to their secondary resources. After explaining the difference between the two types of resources, I was impressed that a majority of the students took the initiative to use online journal databases and microform to complete their primary resource requirements. The students became enthusiastic about their research and the different articles they read to find appropriate information toward their assignments. The students explained that they felt more like detectives because they were reading the resources as if they were a part of the time period and less as students gathering information for a project. I hope the students carried this lesson into their twelfth grade classes and better prepared them for college research.

Mjlib's picture
Mjlib
Tammy Jones Canajoharie High School Library Media Specialist

Two years ago I purchased an ancestry database for our library and put our seniors to work researching their family history. This became our MLA formatted senior research paper and we've seen students pulling together everything from census records and enlistment records to ship manifests and Ellis Island records to piece together who their family was and how they fit into the world from their tiny part of the planet. The project requires interviewing family members and researching the times and places their research leads them. They have been in every database I have and scour the internet. It is the perfect time to explore themselves- just before they head out into the world on their own. Parents and family members often comment it is the best project they have ever seen and they love the chance to talk to the students one on one before they leave the nest. I have yet to encounter a student who was not successful no matter what their background and I find that our exchange students enjoy the project even more than the others.

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