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Research Paper

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 10 months ago

Teaching the Research Paper


The dreaded research paper! Perhaps because no skill was more useful to me in college than knowing how to write a research paper, I take teaching it very seriously, and it counts for a large portion of my students' grade. I teach the research paper in a very traditional way; however, after writing one with my students (which is a very good practice I encourage any English teacher to try), I discovered that the archaic methods of researching everyone complains about actually work pretty well when implemented properly.


The curriculum at my school demands a literary research paper. You may find it easier to let students choose other topics; however, they will need guidance. Student often try to tackle topics that will be very difficult to research in any practical sense. In this day of computers, I find my students research skills regarding books sorely lacking. Google is not always the best source for research papers! However, I must add that Google has a scholarly search engine that will enable students to find books and articles, in some cases available online. It also allows them to locate libraries that have copies of books that might be helpful to them. It is a great research tool. One of the best things I have ever done in teaching the research project was to arrange a field trip to a college library. Luckily for me, we have a community college across the street! The librarian actually tuaght my students how to find information related to their topics. He was an enormous help, and did it all without any compensation. Public libraries would probably be as helpful, too. If you have a very good school library, you may believe this step is unnecessary, but I found it to be extremely helpful to students.


Students generally have trouble with thesis statements. I explain that thesis statements are statements that they must prove. In other words, my view of the research paper is that it is a persuasive paper with research to back up the thesis. Some sample thesis statements culled from my students:


  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's legacy of guilt over the actions of his ancestors influenced his writing.
  • Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience was influential in non-violent social protest movements led by Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The character Louisa Ellis in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short story "A New England Nun" exhibits signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (OK, that was mine!)



I actually teach student to use note cards, even though there seems to be a movement to do away with them. To be honest, I did not use them much in college. After writing a research paper with my students, I discovered that using note cards practically wrote my paper for me. There was no useless hunting around a notebook for the quote I was looking for. I have created a handout that teaches students how to create note cards. First of all, I tell students to write down anything they think might be useful for their paper. Even if they don't wind up using it, they'll have that option. Following the directions on the handout, they simply read material and take notes. I tell them this is their opportunity to paraphrase and summarize as much as possible. After they have taken as many notes as they think they will need, it is time to organize note cards. I actually demonstrated this for students. I got out my note cards and organized them according to the titles I gave them. After I organized them by title, I thought about possible order for composition. Which topic would be good to start with? Which one should come after that? Once I came up with a logical progression, it was time to create an outline.


Creating an outline in MS Word is difficult, because the helpful autoformat feature will not format their outlines properly. A bit of advice: read over the outlines very carefully. This might be the first opportunity to identify problems with students' papers. I have not always done this in the past, choosing to focus instead on first drafts, and students rightfully did not understand why their outlines received high marks when their first drafts did not. There is just no getting around the fact that teaching students to write their first major research paper will take a long time, and it is very difficult. There is a lot of grading involved. If you can, start it so that you have a spread of at least three or four months from start to finish. You might be surprised to learn even that generous amount of time is difficult. I have the same student year-round and a very understanding principal who lets me take a day off to grade. If you have professional days, consider using one for this purpose.


After students have written their outlines, they need to create a first draft. I suggest you ask them to follow the same formatting conventions as they should for the final draft. I teach MLA-style, but I ask that they create a cover page formatted to my own personal preference, which I am sure to explain to them in writing. I cannot overemphasize the importance of explaining each step in a handout so students can refer to it while they are writing. I am as critical as I can possibly be (my students might even say ruthless) at this stage. As a result, their final drafts are polished and often receive very high marks. If it is easier for you, you can type a narrative for each student detailing the strengths and weaknesses of his/her paper. I have a colleague who does this -- sure does help with writer's cramp. If students in general have one major weakness at this stage, it is not documenting properly. I deduct major points for this so they will learn the importance of proper documentation. I recommend testing students over documentation by giving them fictional works of literature with all the information they might need for a works cited entry. It is fun if it includes their names and interests. An example might be:


Create a works cited entry for an article written by Dana Huff entitled "I Have the Best Students" in School Digest, published on June 20, 2005, appearing on pp. 34-36.


Huff, Dana. "I Have the Best Students." School Digest. 20 Jun 2005. 34-36.


Websites seem to be tricky for students to figure out how to document. MLA, for example, calls for students to write URLs like this: <http://www.huffenglish.com/>. However, MS Word will translate that into hypertext, which is an MLA formatting error. Remind students to either turn that feature off, or right-click on the link and select "Remove hyperlink."


The best thing you can do for students is make sure they have a great resource. If your textbook isn't much help, and you are unable to order additional books for this purpose, make handouts for them or send them to websites that are helpful. My students use the following excellent texts to write their research papers:


  • Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference: 2003 MLA Update. 5th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. (click to purchase)
  • Baker, Sheridan. The Practial Stylist. 8th edition. New York: Longman Publishing Group, 1997. (click to purchase)



By the way, I require students to underline instead of use italics. Even though the two formatting mark-ups are basically the same, MLA still requires underlining.


One of the best things about the Hacker book is that MLA, APA, and CMS are included. This book got me through college (way back in its third edition!). It's an excellent resource.


There are many websites that offer help for documentation. Rather than link them all here, I have instead a Google search link for "mla documentation".


In addition to creating handouts for note cards and formal outlines, I also gave students a handout with a list of all sections of the project with corresponding point value and a checklist for the final draft.


Steps to model:


  1. Give students a list of general topics. My students must write a literary analysis of an American author's work. I give them a suggested list of authors, but allow them to choose authors not on the list. Take care to give students feedback if you think they will have difficulty finding information about their topic. A student of mine chose Gregory McGuire last year, and while McGuire is celebrated, he is also a very new author, and not much criticism exists yet.
  2. Demonstrate how to formulate a Research Thesis.
  3. Demonstrate how to write a Works Cited entry for a source card.

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