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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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