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Rethinking the Research Paper


By Michelle LaFrance

Rebecca Schuman whipped up an educational furor in December of 2013, writing on “We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure.” Schuman’s rationale: “Students Hate Writing Papers. Professors Hate Grading Papers.” Since Schuman’s post went viral, any number of online responses have cropped up—defending the typical college essay, suggesting new approaches to this central writing activity, and critiquing the sorts of characterizations of education that arise from “click bait” traffic on sites like But Schuman’s post echoes with a lively, ongoing conversation in the field of Writing Studies. She is not the first, nor will she be the last, to question the traditional research-based essay in college courses.

Barbara Fister (an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College), for instance, has been an outspoken critic of the research paper for a number of years. In her piece, “Why the Research Paper Isn’t Working,” Fister laments the “mixed messages” sent by typical “research paper” assignments. For Fister, the form is an “artificial genre” that “works at cross-purposes to actually developing respect for evidence-based reasoning, a measured appreciation for negotiating ideas that are in conflict, or original thought.” Moreover, the artificiality of the research-process and experience of writing the traditional research paper interferes with the students’ desire to engage in deep and meaningful ways with course materials, to think through why the ethics of source usage really do matter in the real world, and ultimately, to care much about the subjects they chose to write about.

Moreover, recent research on student citation practices uncovered by The Citation Project, has opened a series of unnerving questions around instruction in research-writing. Interested in understanding how students were engaging and comprehending source materials, The Citation Project team examined the kinds of sources students were drawing on and identified patterns in source usage in the research-based writing of a random sample of undergraduates at 16 different institutions. Some of the principle findings include:
• Students tended to cite from a source only once;
• Around 50% of the 1,832 citations in student essays were drawn from source material that was five pages or shorter;
• Over 75% of the citations referred to information that appeared on the first three pages of the source;
• Very little summary of sources appeared in the essays studied—164 incidences of summary out of 1,832 citations.

These results indicate that students are typically locating shorter sources, not reading to the end of their sources, and alighting on several different sources without investing time in reading those sources. (The project’s findings are summarized here.)
All of these conversations point to the importance of thinking through the research-based assignments we offer undergraduate writers. As instructors, we want to be offering authentic and well-scaffolded assignments that offer students the opportunity for students to engage deeply and meaningfully in research practice and processes of inquiry.

In truth, even well-designed research-based assignments can simply fall flat. Despite our best efforts, students often see research papers as formulaic or rote; many students are balancing work, school, family, and other important personal issues and will simply not have the time, project management skills, or interest to think through the material as carefully as we’d like them to. Inexperienced undergraduate writers often do not understand the nature of expertise and/or authority in academic fields. Many students struggle to read academic texts because they are unfamiliar with the register and conventions of these forms. Because they lack the depth and breadth that professor take for granted, undergraduates are often unable to situate themselves within the ongoing conversations that ground effective research questions, the selection of sources, or the synthesis of source-based materials.

What then might professors who value the research-based writing assignment do to support students in developing the aptitudes, knowledges, and interests necessary for effective research writing? The following tips offer some ways to rethink the traditional research paper.

• Ask students to develop their own questions, drawing from the learning goals of the course. Workshop these questions in class so that students may benefit from each other, as well as seeing the range of interpretations that may arise from course materials.
• Ask students to describe the active conversation about a topic or problem, including how thinkers in a field may diverge in their positions and what standpoints inform those points of agreement/disagreement.
• Ask students to identify and define the audience they will address in their essays. Be sure to discuss the attributes, needs, and values of this audience in class.
• Ask students to write a proposal for submission to a funding, industry, or government organization—have them pose, define, and present their findings on a current problem, as well as the solution they seek support for.
How have you rethought research-based writing assignments in the courses you teach? We look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.

Works Cited
“Phase I Data.” The Citation Project. The Citation Project. 2001. Web 2 Feb. 2014

Fister, Barbara. “Why the “Research Paper” Isn’t Working.” Inside Higher Ed April 12, 2011. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.

Schumann, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay. An Essay.” 13 December 13. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Links For Further Reading:
Berret, Dan. “Skimming the Surface.” Inside Higher Ed. April 11, 2011, Web. 2 Feb 2014.

Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg. “Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students.”
Project Information Literacy Progress Report July 13, 2010. Web 2 Feb 2014.

“Improving the Research Essay.” WAC Clearinghouse.

Project Information Literacy.

Michelle LaFrance is the director of the George Mason University Writing Across the Curriculum program. Her academic work on the material conditions of writing programs has appeared in College Composition and Communication and edited collections in the field of Writing Studies. New to the DC area, she is looking forward to discovering bike trails along the Potomac.