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?

Reading Between the Assignment’s Lines

Project Information Literacy has a new study out that complements their earlier work. In the new study, PIL researchers collected and examined research assignment prompts to see how they guide students toward good sources, and discovered that … they don’t. That is, the assignments tend to be fairly specific about the surface features of what the finished product should look like, but offer little guidance on how to find and make choices among sources or what this kind of assignment is intended to achieve.

Another piece of the project involved interviewing faculty to tease out some of the thinking behind them, to see how faculty supplement assignment prompts with in-class instruction, and what issues they see students struggle with. While it was clear in the interviews that faculty are frustrated by students’ lack of preparation, and that they spend lots of time explaining how to carry out the task, the assignments themselves don’t address the problem.

PIL’s previous study of student experiences found that virtually all students use the Internet in their research, but very nearly all of them also use library databases. Not so many used books in their research. In contrast, of the assignment prompts analyzed in the study, 60% required or encouraged use of materials on the shelves in the library, 43% suggested that students use library databases (though few specified which ones would be most useful), and 26% suggested students might find good sources through the Web. Fifteen percent discouraged or forbade the use of Internet sources, and 10% specifically forbade the use of Wikipedia. The authors seem correct to describe the approach to research laid out in these assignments as “tradition bound” – not just in terms of where students were likely to find the appropriate sources, but in that 83% of the assignments asked students to write traditional research papers. (When collecting these prompts, the researchers asked for assignments that asked students to find and use sources; they didn’t ask for research paper assignments, but that seems to be the primary way faculty engage students in using sources.)

One final intriguing connection between the report on student practices and on assignments: few students turned to librarians for help with their research, though they did look to their teachers for guidance. And though the majority of assignments recommended students use print resources in the library, very few of them suggested consulting with a librarian.

Here’s the abstract:

A report of findings from a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts distributed to undergraduates on 28 college campuses across the U.S., as part of Project Information Literacy. A majority of handouts in the sample emphasized standards about the mechanics of compiling college research papers, more so than guiding students to finding and using sources for research. Most frequently, handouts advised students to use their campus library shelves and/or online library sources when conducting research for assignments, though most handouts lacked specific details about which of he library’s hundreds of databases to search. Few handouts advised students about using Internet sources, even though many of today’s students almost always integrate the Web into their research activities. Very few handouts recommended consulting a librarian about research assignments. Details about evaluating information, plagiarism, and instructor availability appeared in only a minority of the handouts analyzed. The findings suggest that handouts for academic research assignments provide students with more how-to procedures and conventions for preparing a final product for submission, than guidance about conducting research and finding and using information in the digital age.

There’s also a short video summarizing the results available as well as an interview with Andrea Lunsford, the goddess of writing instruction and a principal investigator behind the massive Stanford Study of Writing.

Note: edited to correct a few numbers that I’d reported incorrectly. (D’oh!)

photo courtesy of monica, nic