An Argument for Assigning Three Research Papers

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This is probably a dangerous idea to advance right now when some of you have research papers proliferating on your computer or your desk like unmatched socks in the dryer. Or maybe you are one of the lucky ones who have finished grading!

Do you remember courses you took, perhaps not even in your field of specialization, that required one massive research paper that counted for fifty percent or more of your final grade? That one paper could largely make or break your success in the course. And how many times have you read a student’s research paper and wished that student had another chance to fix what was wrong, but the term was essentially over?

That’s why a number of years ago I started assigning a series of research papers on the same topic so that students could refine their use of sources while there was still time to learn. From the first of the semester, students had been using sources that were in their textbooks and learning to document the use of sources to incorporate paraphrases and direct quotations into their own texts. With the three final essays, students worked with a topic of their choice, contingent on my approval, and their independent research. Students were encouraged to think carefully about the topic and write a proposal that was designed to head off some fairly predictable problems.

The proposal assignment asked students to conceptualize how three different thesis statements could be crafted on the topic: a claim of fact, a claim of value, and a claim of policy. I asked students to provide a short list of possible sources to ensure that the students researched the topic enough to determine whether there was enough information available to write about it.

One advantage for students is that the same information can be used for all three papers. If students document the first paper correctly, they should find the later papers are fairly easy to document. The number of sources can change as necessary, as can the specific sources used, but portions of the first essay can be used in the later essays. Of course, if there are serious problems with the choice of sources or how they are used, there is a chance to correct that in the later papers. What changes for all students is the purpose of each paper, which shifts with the type of claim being supported. A claim of value is a bit more difficult to support than a claim of fact and a claim of policy the most challenging of all. The final paper must be addressed to an audience in a position to do something about the situation being discussed, so there is a more persuasive element to the final paper.

Does all of this sound like an incredible amount of work for the instructor? Keep in mind that with the second and third papers, the instructor is seeing, with most students, at least some student writing that he or she has seen before—and corrected. I require that the first, marked essay be turned in with the second and the first and second with the third.  For most students, the papers get easier to grade as they go through the sequence, and one of the biggest pluses is the growth that can be seen in the students who started out with a weak first paper.

working hard during study hall  by mrskradz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.