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Research Papers

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

The current discourse among English teachers revolves around whether or not to assign the dreaded research paper. Some say that research papers are a waste of time in high school; that students end up writing reports (aka word regurgitation); that they don’t know how to come up with research-worthy topics; or that they plagiarize throughout and are unable to synthesize or cite their sources properly. All of this may be true, but do we really expect outstanding results if students have never been taught the research paper process? How can the expected outcome be anything but inadequate if we, high school English teachers, are unwilling to help them uncover worthy and interesting topics, teach them how to write solid thesis statements, encourage their analytical skills, and guide them through the note-taking, outlining, and citation processes?

Think about how long it took you to master the process, to uncover truths, to analyze, to synthesize, and to resist the urge to plagiarize (convincing yourself that your professor will never know). Tragically, I was not taught how to write a research paper in high school and had a rude awakening the first time I submitted my jumbled mess to my much-admired college history professor. His marginal comments outweighed the typed text on the pages (poor man, he must have drained his pen on my paper alone), that I researched from actual books, journals, and microfiche (micro-what?) found in the basement of the library. I cursed the names of my English teachers, screaming, “Why didn’t you teach me how to write a research paper?!”

Unfortunately, twenty-something years later, many high school English teachers still do not teach the research paper process. And for many who do, the current trend is to teach a portion of the process only. Since when does a portion constitute a whole?

This “portion control” is not working; in fact, the current talk among college professors revolves around the unfortunate analytical thinking and writing skills of incoming freshmen. Many have given up on the students; they throw their hands up in the air or shake their heads in disappointment, immensely discouraged by the current class of “20-something.” Have we truly made no progress in the last two decades?

In my English-teacher-utopian-world, I choose to believe that there’s still a time and place for the research paper and that it teaches many necessary skills, including research techniques, analysis, time management, and writing rigor.  Now the question becomes, “Okay, if we’re forced to teach this thing, then how do we do it?”

“I don’t know what to write about.”

First, teachers must commit a few days at the beginning of the assignment for hands-on, one-on-one teaching and modeling of the research, outlining, note-taking and writing processes. We must also offer interesting and engaging topics in a format that encourages analysis. I teach AP® Language & Composition, and although it’s geared toward nonfiction, I like to include a handful of American Literature selections in the curriculum as well by having all incoming students choose a different American novel to read over the summer; later they present the book to the class during the first two months of the new school year. In the third month, they read five American short stories from before 1900 and five after 1900 (any American literature textbook will suffice). As they read, they begin to form connections between their novels, the short stories, class discussions, and the world at large and are able to come up with topics for their Research Argument Paper. Embedding these works into the curriculum allows for an individualized, intriguing analysis on topics unique to each student. Because each has read different works, they are urged to find commonalities between their own personal interests and the texts themselves. Students are offered a few teasers to get their wheels turning. I try to pique their interest with topics from past students—why not write about how memories haunt the living in The English Patient; how Transcendental theory can both destroy and save people in Thoreau and Into the Wild; how the dysfunctional lives of ex-pats influenced American values via The Sun Also Rises; or how societal shunning manifests madness, as in “A Rose for Emily”? We spend an entire class period debriefing the assignment, coming up with topics, bouncing ideas off one another, and writing and rewriting thesis statements until they are excited (yes, excited!) about their topics.

“Notes? Citing Sources? I don’t get it.”

After baby-stepping them through the coming-up-with-a-topic and writing-a-thesis-statement process; we spend another full day on Cornell Notes, outlining, MLA formatting, citing sources, and researching.  For modeling these skills, I mainly reference Andrea Lunsford’s Everyday Writer and OWL at Purdue online. I don’t tell them right away about Internet citation shortcut sites, because, like long division, they need to learn the long version. (I eventually lead them to The Bedford Bibliographer, which has an amazingly easy, accurate, and free citation-maker.)  When they ask me how to cite an electronic magazine that can only be accessed by a specific institution, I say, “I don’t know. Check your handbook.” Citations are not meant to be memorized. Why take up crucial brain space to memorize MLA, APA, and Chicago—that’s the purpose of the style handbook. I explain that in-text citations, works cited pages, footnotes, and bibliographies are like mini treasure hunts; the in-text citation leads us to the works cited page, to the endnotes and footnotes. This makes sense to them. They begin to understand the process.

“What’s a library and what am I supposed to do in it one once I get there?”

After understanding the basics, it’s crucial that students understand the assignment and how to conduct research on their topic. They must keep their sources manageable by only choosing one or two primary ones (the American literature or fiction) and to use the secondary sources (nonfiction) to back up their analysis of the fiction. For instance, if they are arguing that memories do, in fact, haunt the living, they would first find textual evidence in the fiction, and then factual confirmation in the nonfiction (e.g., an article on the emotional effects of memories in a psychological journal) to back up their theory. They need to streamline their sources so that what they end up using builds their argument and proves their thesis.

Finding credible sources is overwhelming for the beginner; they simply don’t know where to start.  Many students are not acquainted with the library; they don’t know the academic benefits of the Internet.  This generation tends to think of the library only as a place to find The Hunger Games and the Internet only as a way to socially connect. They don’t know the true benefits of literary criticisms, scholastic journals, and district databases. It’s up to us to open up this world to them. And if you haven’t looked into it already, some districts (all districts in Florida) that offer AP® classes are supposed to offer student access to online college and university sources as well.  Also, in addition to EBSCO and academic databases, there’s also Google Scholar, Google Docs, and Refworks.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I think I actually enjoyed doing the research.”

Once students have finished, you must have them submit papers to some type of plagiarism checker.  My district uses Blackboard, but there are many others available:, and for example.

Then it’s time to celebrate their efforts by spending a few class periods reading and scoring the essays aloud. No matter how uncomfortable they are sharing their work with their peers, students always seem quite impressed with their accomplishment—and I with mine. This feeling of once-again-conquering-the-inevitable is all I need to find the oomph to teach this process again the next year, because if I don’t, research papers will become relics of the past and I can’t stand the thought of another vital learning skill joining the ranks of Latin, hardcover books, and cursive handwriting.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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