Whither the Research Paper?
I teach a 3-credit information literacy course at my college, and the research paper I assign is a large portion of students’ grade for the class. The assignment is divided into multiple scaffolds: a research proposal, an annotated bibliography, a first draft (which includes one class session spent peer reviewing), and the final paper. Students are encouraged to write on any topic relevant to the course content — information and media literacy — and they have generally had no trouble picking a topic that interests them. Paper topics have ranged from privacy issues on Facebook, to the copyright implications of sampling in popular music, to the changes in written English with the popularity of text messaging.
Despite the assignment scaffolds, their evident enthusiasm for their research topics, and their general success in finding appropriate sources (on which we spend lots of time in class), some students have real trouble completing the paper successfully. Certainly that’s due in part to prior experience — most students in the course are in their 1st or 2nd year at the college, and have not had the opportunity to write many research papers at the college level, if any. Many of them dislike writing and feel that it’s extremely difficult (in that I reassure them that they’re most certainly not alone). Some do fine in the literature review section of the paper, but most falter when it comes to synthesizing the information to present their own ideas or conclusions.
The research paper is also a challenge for me, as I know it is for other instructors. They’re very time-consuming to grade, especially taking the time to track down students’ sources to scan through alongside the papers. While completely plagiarized or purchased term papers are the most spectacular examples of academic dishonesty, in my experience the improperly paraphrased paper with few (if any) in-text citations is much more common. Casual conversations with faculty in other departments as well as this post from the University of Venus blog on Inside Higher Ed let me know that I’m not alone in these experiences.
I could ask students to present the results of their research and the conclusions they’ve drawn as a video, podcast, or some form of multimedia project. But the course is writing-intensive, so even without a research paper students are required to complete a fair amount of writing for the course. And there is an assignment in which students work together in groups and present their research projects to the class using a blog and a Powerpoint presentation that they’ve created.
It’s true that some of our students will go on to graduate school, and for them the process of writing a formal academic research paper is invaluable training for what’s to come. But what about those who don’t go to graduate school — what does writing a research paper accomplish for them?
I’m stuck on this question because in my gut I feel that yes, the research paper is a valuable assignment for all students. But the justifications that come to mind most readily have to do with the value of writing in general: writing helps us think through issues thoroughly, forces us to make choices about what’s important about the topic, and improves communication skills, which are critical to any career.
I’m not teaching the course this semester, but I’ve been thinking on ideas for next semester, strategies to use to help students work on their summarizing skills and ability to synthesize material from multiple sources. But I still find myself questioning the research paper assignment. Should all college students have the experience of writing a formal academic research paper? And, if so, why?