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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

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brittney Rupple's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an 8th grade English teacher, research is not an area that is usually pushed. However, after discussing curriculum with the 9th grade English teachers, I decided I needed to help students gain the necessary skills to write research papers. Therefore, we are devoting several units across the curriculum to research writing. Because knowing how to write a research paper is crucial in high school and college, we are building students' skills at an earlier age. I feel that they should go to high school prepared to write an academic essay. Often once they are out of middle school, teachers do not take the time to teach them the basics of research. In my classroom, we are working on the basics like paraphrasing, outlining, note cards, formats, and works cited pages. Hopefully, this will leave students more equipped for their next levels of education.

Terrie Hazard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a high school library media specialist who collaborates with teachers to help students become information literate. At the introduction to a research project I give lessons that cover website evaluation and databases navigation.
We feel that it is important to give the students critical thinking skills since there is so much information out there for them to draw from. We ask them to make sense of their sources and be able to defend them. I believe in this way they are better prepared for the college arena.

Linda Aragoni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Most students who I've had as college students usually have been exposed to note taking, citations, bibliography in high school. However, nobody has ever taught them how to present source information in a paragraph. They think a research paper is all about form and mechanics. They don't see it as a piece of writing.

Since the academic way of presenting information (what I call the evidence waltz) mimics natural conversation, there's no reason why students can learn it in seventh grade. Among other things, knowing the standard format goes a long way toward preventing plagiarism.

Linda Aragoni

Mike Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am both a 10th grade World History and 12th grade American Government teacher, and I cannot agree more. I am a second career teacher in my 50s and when I went back to school I assisted several professors as an assistant. In grading papers it became quite evident our high school kids are not graduating with the needed skills to read and write at the college level. Thus, since I began teaching in the classroom 5 years ago, all my classes have at writing projects. In my world history class, besides writing critical book reviews after reading approved library books, I make my sophomores write one 3-5 page research paper on World Religions, comparing and contrasting them. The hard part is getting them off a total reliance on the internet. I make them find material in books, citing primary and secondary source material for their research paper. I try to corodinate with the English teachers so they can cooperate by providing paper writing skills in their classes, and will offer a grsde on the structure and format of the paper, whereas I grade the content quality.

My seniors know they have a challenging 5 page paper dealing with the necessity for the creation of the US Constitution versus remaining with the original Articles of Confederation. I make them search out primary source material, and they must use a minimum of three or more text materials, in addition to internet material. All must be cited properly. I still find many seniors do not understand what citing and footnoting means. I have to provide class time in both my sophomore and senior classes on writing a proper paper. And I always keep for modeling purposes several excellent papers for them to use as a guide.

With the intervention of state testing of our curriculums, research paper writing skills have taken a back seat to more basic reading and writing skills. It is sad, but the excuse I have received from English teachers here in Florida.

I would like to hear from other teacher in other states.

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I first began reading your blog post I was thinking papers are great but at the beginning of the Twenty First Century students should also be developing other multi-media presentation formats. So, I was thrilled when I got to the end and saw that your students also develop documentaries. When developing documentaries, perhaps it's fair to say that the purpose of a written paper is to tighten thinking, scope and sequence. (Of course as you argue it's also to prepare students for higher educational endeavors.)

Andrew Pass

Marilyn Hiestand's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my business class, I require my students to write a four page research paper. It is not organized as a skill to learn to get into college. It is presented as a skill to learn so that the student can develop a viable business. Gathering information on any subject requires research skills. The paper I require them to do takes them through all the necessary steps. It helps them see that "research" can be personally helpful and gets them engaged in the process.

B Raymo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was thinking how does this relate to 21st century skills? Then got to the end of the reading and saw the documentaries portion of the assignment (like Andrew said in the previous post). The documentary part is a very important part, because it provides for differentiation within the project. I wonder if higher education will make the adjustment to 21st century skills? Just thinking about my college career (undergrad), I can think of only one time where we were asked to use 21st century skills to create something. I wonder what it is like today? Has higher ed made the adjustment? Will they make the adjustment? I do realize that the term "higher ed" is very broad, and to lump all higher ed into one giant/broad term might be incorrect. Anybody else have any thoughts on 21st century skills at the college level?

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.

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