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The benefits of a new approach to student research papers (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

The typical approach to the research paper — the generic term for pretty much all academic writing — is to assign it as a summative assessment at the end of the semester. Faculty members normally give students a couple of weeks to research a topic, acquire new knowledge and communicate that knowledge in a perfectly formatted 20-page paper. Not only is it virtually impossible for even professional researchers to be this productive in such a short time span, but this approach also does not accurately teach the research writing process.

As a member of Teaching College Writing, I have provided workshops and resources to faculty in the disciplines — faculty who do not identify as writing teachers, but faculty who nonetheless assign significant amounts of writing. Invariably, the first recommendation is to do something radical: assign the summative research paper the second week of the semester, or even earlier. What TCW offers is a slow writing approach to research. The point is not to just give students more time but also to emphasize and promote, in the words of Michelle Tremmel in the Iowa State University English department, “techniques in rhetorically real writing.”

Writing the research paper slowly allows us to meticulously scaffold for students all the complex steps that go into a process we often take for granted. Additionally, a slow writing approach can reinforce the learning of content, engaging students’ situational interest as well as helping them develop self-regulatory skills — such as determining which information is relevant to their now semester-long projects. The latter is especially crucial when we consider that cramming (and dumping a bunch of first impressions into a last-minute final paper certainly counts as cramming) rarely results in retained knowledge. Self-regulation empowers students to take control of their learning, using writing as the medium. After all, it isn’t so much the research paper that’s important — not every student aspires to become a scientist — but the research process, which can benefit students in any situation.

For instance, TCW worked with faculty teaching a 100-level Integrated Plant Sciences course at Washington State University to design a semester-long writing project. In the first week, while introducing students to the research project, faculty invited them to select a topic related to the content the course would cover. Students identified a plant superpower — an exceptional ability of a particular plant that would attract cultivation.

Faculty explicitly taught students how to begin exploring sources, such as using databases particular to Integrated Plant Sciences, and evaluating those various sources. Once they identified the best sources, students took notes about information that aligned with the required content — for example, the biological processes of particular plants.

Thus, their reading and writing practices, once slowed down, reinforced their learning. Keeping self-regulated learning in mind, students were not just developing individual course content knowledge — they were also practicing the skills that would enable them to continue developing content knowledge beyond that individual course. At the very least, they now knew how to acquire new information.

Next, faculty explicitly taught students how to organize and write their notes into a “scientific story.” Too often, the tactics for arranging information into a particular discipline’s story remain implicit. Student are expected to be familiar with the nuances of appropriate genres and modes of writing in, say, science or history because disciplinary faculty rely on first-year writing programs to teach this familiarity. However, many first-year writing courses are not taught by faculty with expertise beyond writing. As a result, while they can teach students generally how to write a paragraph, they can’t prepare students for the nuances of what makes a text a scientific story as opposed to a literary or historical one.

As I illustrated by the Integrated Plant Sciences example, learning to read and write texts specific to any course also promotes learning the content of that course when the connections are made explicit. For this phase of that course, faculty taught students how to storyboard the knowledge they constructed of their chosen plant. Students began by composing an opening hook — for example, the plant’s superpower — providing a background of the plant, stating the purpose of researching the plant’s cultivation potential, and then offering evidence of that potential. As their storyboard took the shape of an outline for their research paper, it also organized the new information they were acquiring into a more meaningful schema of knowledge than had they quickly skimmed sources in a time crunch.

Along the way, the course’s teaching assistants could quickly assess each phase of the project with simple observational checklists: Did the student summarize x number of sources? Did the student complete a storyboard? With multiple dichotomous (yes/no) checkpoints, teaching assistants could quickly identify when and where students needed help in the research process based on whether they accomplished each step.

By the point in the semester when most other classes were just introducing the final research paper, students in the Integrated Plant Sciences course essentially had a solid outline, a firm grasp of the knowledge they intended to communicate and a clear vision of what they would write. Their only remaining task was to ensure they were following proper citation styles and that their writing was generally error-free.

That level of preparation resulted in 75 percent of the students feeling confident they could complete a similar project without the scaffolded steps. To support students’ self-reported confidence, faculty observed that the final research papers’ overall quality had been “significantly improved” compared to past semesters. And as an added bonus, time spent grading final papers — since they had been assessed at smaller, more frequent time intervals — had been “significantly reduced.”

In surveys, students reported that the slow research writing process helped them “meaningfully engage” their topics, even though it required “more work” than simply “throwing ideas together and turning it in all at once.” Their responses emphasize that writing can be a powerful method of learning, not just a demonstration of knowledge. By slowing down the writing students do in the disciplines, we can make evident the important skills they need in a variety of situations, not just in the completion of the almighty research paper.

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