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?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

12 thoughts on “Whither the Research Paper?”

  1. Great questions. My first reaction was that research papers are valuable, but like you a lot of it is tied up in a belief that writing itself is an important part of learning. But I think there is something different(and valuable) about writing *from sources*. I was an academic debater in school and it was one of the more important learning experiences of my life. The kind of debate I used to do was very evidence-focused, examining questions of policy. There is another form of debate, not based on evidence in the same way (that has become much more common – in some regions its the only kind of debate you can easily do now) and that makes me sad, not because there is no value to doing the other kind of debate but it doesn’t produce my value – the things I value most from my experience. Most of the skills and perspectives that I still draw on from that experience didn’t come from learning to express an argument well or even from learning to break down someone else’s argument – they came from working with sources.

    Writing from sources in a way where you have to force your brain to integrate new ideas is different than writing to communicate well, or from writing to understand your own thinking, and that difference means it has its own value, I think. And increasingly I also think it’s that experience students lack more than anything – not so much experience with the mechanics of quoting and citing but the experience of engaging in a constructive learning process *as* they write. I wasn’t pushed to do that in high school; that’s why debate was so formative for me. And it does also point to why just writing research papers might not be valuable. I wonder how often students are really pushed to integrate new ideas when writing research papers, and how many instructors take the extra step you do when grading to track down and examine the students’ use of sources?

  2. Hi Maura, Thanks for this post. The thing that REALLY jumps out at me is this: “but most falter when it comes to synthesizing the information to present their own ideas or conclusions.” This is really the crux of advancing knowledge and thereby advancing humanity. This is the thing I most worry about being eroded; the ability of people to be critical thinkers and knowledge creators rather than simply regurgitators. The combination of information overload, hyper-multi-tasking, and the devaluation of careful reflection and contemplation really threaten true scholarship. Please don’t give up on the research paper as a valuable exercise. I know I want my kids to be able to think original thoughts! Good luck!

  3. Richard Larson wrote a great article in 1982 questioning the “research paper” as a “non-form of writing” that I think still has a lot of validity. He felt that while researched writing is valuable, the term paper that asks for students to summarize what others say bears little resemblance to real research.

    That said, learning to write from sources has great value as Anne-Marie points out. I think it also at its best encourages the idea that we should let evidence play a role in shaping what we believe. And when it really clicks, it is an invitation to the student writer to take charge of their own authority as authors of new ideas that are based on a wide conversation.

    At its worst, it is a frustrating writing experience that focuses on arcane rules that only apply to college writing. Creating an experience where the writing becomes more discovery and a chance to find one’s authoritative academic voice rather than a rule-laden chore is tricky. I try to put most of the work of commenting on papers into the draft, where I tell students I’m playing the role of editor (not copy-editor, but editor as at a newsroom or a journal editorial office); actually grading it takes much less time. I just look at the draft and final product and fill in a rubric.

    It sounds like a great course and a wonderful chance to connect information and media literacy with writing instruction.

  4. I think writing a research paper is one of the strongest ways available to students to learn critical thinking. The activity of reading, understanding, and accurately quoting a variety of materials, then synthesizing them to create an original work, seems vital to me, and I don’t think any other type of assignment replicates it.

  5. yes, writing a longer piece of formal research forces a student to critically explore a topic, formulate an argument and explore it in depth – and by doing this multiple times over the course of their academic career, it helps develop critical thinking skills far better then writing short “expository” pieces. Not to mention that such writing helps their writing skills far more then shorter pieces as well. I am forever grateful I went to a college that such writing was routine in every course!

  6. It’s really hard to present your own ideas when you’ve read all the experts’ thoughts. What are your own ideas at that point? Even as a graduate student in English studying in a relatively new area, after a thorough lit review that covered all the questions I had about a piece, I wasn’t sure what was left to say. It’s a lot to ask an 18 or 19 year old to develop a unique insight into a topic they rarely considered in-depth until a month or so prior.

    I did my best writing and thinking when I was asked to think critically about a piece of writing (a novel, say) and then present my own arguments and perspectives on it. I am forever grateful to my English profs that they didn’t have us pull in too much criticism and rather asked us to do our own textual analysis.

    Perhaps a remedy would be this: get the students to choose the topic and write about it in-depth and thoughtfully *before* they do any research. Then, they research and review the important articles and learn what the experts have to say; they write this up as a lit review. Then, they write a third piece explaining how their thoughts have evolved or changed given what they’ve read. So they write about their own perspective, but bolstered and informed by research.

    (And, as a former writing instructor, I would probably toss in a fourth piece where they reflect on the whole process, reading their original essay and final essay and comparing them.)

  7. I have two thoughts about this, both having to do with the aspect of the research paper that is the “writing from sources” and the analysis and synthesis piece of that, which the other commenters have already identified as one critical piece of the research paper.

    First, I wonder if one way to get at that skill without all the additional baggage of the research paper might be to assign students to find two (or three) articles that are somehow in conversation with each other: one cites the other, or refutes the other, or builds on a theory advanced by the other, or something like that. Ask the students to articulate the relationship between the two (or three) articles and comment on how effectively they think the later article refutes/builds upon/whatever the former article. That’s what we want scholars to be able to do in their lit reviews, right? So why not focus on that specific skill and give students some practice doing JUST that piece?

    And second, I agree with the commenters above who say that writing a research paper is a great way to build critical thinking skills, explore an argument, etc. — IF they do the assignment well and thoroughly, and to a certain extent, IF they are sufficiently prepared (both developmentally and in terms of their previous academic work and experience).

    I suspect that everyone who has assigned a research paper has gotten back anywhere from a few to a pile of papers where they thought, “wow, this student really didn’t get the point.” If that’s you, and you’re seeing more of those papers than you’re really comfortable with, I would respectfully ask whether you think that continuing to give the same assignment is likely to yield different results?

  8. What Joan says is interesting. Some disciplines should not assign research that looks like research in their field unless they really want their students to become mini-professors. Learning to respond thoughtfully to a literary text is no doubt more valuable than learning to interpret and build on literary theory.

    But I was just involved in a Facebook discussion with some reporters and others on the implications of the assault on Lara Logan in Egypt. We were flinging references at each other and feverishly hunting up evidence for our points and opening up so many ways to think about an event that had just happened and I thought “are research paper assignments preparing our students for this kind of evidence-based argument?” I hope so, but I’m not sure.

    FWIW, I did a small survey of students about their workload and what assignments they find valuable and which a waste of time. Lots of students said research papers were valuable; none listed them as a waste of time. (Oh, except for one student whose only answer to the “waste of time” question was “anything involving bibliographies” which I take to be more of a commentary on citation practices than writing from sources per se. Also, I agree with her – bibliographies are a pain.)

  9. Joan’s comment rings a bell for me — last semester one student said (a few times) that he couldn’t see that any of this thoughts were original, because hadn’t there already been so much research and writing done on his topic? I do have regular short pieces of writing built into the course (blogging assignments), and asking them to think and write about their topics before doing the bulk of their research could fit well there.

    Thanks for all of these suggestions, everyone — this discussion has been really helpful in my thinking about the research paper assignment.

  10. As a high school English teacher I have also struggled with this question and I always decided to have my 11th grade students write a full research paper because I felt this would prepare them for college writing. But as colleges are requiring fewer and fewer papers, that logic is less valid. However, I have always believed the research process and critical thinking skills may be more significant than the actual writing. The ability to synthsize information requires sophisticated thinking useful outside academia. It seems important that at some level of education students should complete a full research paper to build the skills that are excercised in addition to the writing.

  11. One other byproduct to the research paper is learning how to formulate an educated, well-researched argument. In every field, researchers must defend their argument. The research paper exposes a student to how other researchers present their arguments as a sort of template for the student to follow. The best way to learn how to do something is to imitate a master in the field first, then over time the apprentice learns to craft the message/product/paper using their own voice/mode of expression.

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