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I love teaching research writing.
No seriously, I do.
Look, I know that for a lot of teachers, the mere suggestion of teaching any kind of research writing triggers a whole host of bad memories. Piles of notecards, copies of multiple articles, large encyclopedias open to a single page with tiny print, hours spent trying to figure out exactly how to cite sources with the help of a style guide.Research Paper Alternatives That Will Still Increase Research Skills Click To Tweet
While all of those memories raise valid fears, the truth is that the 21st century has made research and the teaching of research exponentially easier.
It also has become exponentially more important that we teach our students how to research a topic, properly vet their sources, and synthesize information from a variety of publications in order to responsibly present their information to a third party.
The research paper itself is not going away, nor should it. Students who intend to pursue higher education need to learn how to not only research, but synthesize that research into a fully formed document with cited sources to demonstrate a full understanding of a topic and the ability to form a coherent and persuasive argument for a third audience. They need to understand that research is not an English skill but an academic skill that is a necessary foundation of nearly every area of study, from medicine to law to engineering. We build on the research and discoveries of others. It is how we make progress.Research Paper Alternatives That Will Still Increase Research Skills Click To Tweet
And in the “real world,” it is rarely presented as a 20-page MLA or APA formatted document to be graded by a tired English teacher.
Because research and synthesis are so important to an informed citizenry, how can we teach our students to help them build the skills necessary to write a research paper as the final assessment of their skills, not just as something that we throw at them because “this is something they will need to do in college”?
Research skills are necessary for nearly every discipline and should be practiced in more than just English classes, but that doesn’t mean that math teachers have to require their students to write 10-page papers about mathematicians or PE teachers have to have their students write three-page papers over the history of a sport.
Here are a few suggestions for research-driven tasks that teachers in most disciplines can incorporate in their curriculum to teach students research, synthesis, and responsible citation of their sources without the burden of multiple research papers over the course of a school year. The bonus? They can also add an element of fun to what has been historically mundane.
This is honestly an option that I had not considered until I started my current teaching position and our English 10 team assigned a one-pager over human rights issues as our introduction to Night. What I had always assigned as a 1500-word research assignment complete with an annotated bibliography and a Google Slides presentation suddenly became a simple assignment that required students to include a citation for their sources in each of the expected quadrants. Using the one-pager concept for simple research has multiple possibilities for assignment complexity, as well. Teachers can use it to practice paraphrasing and citations, require works cited pages (when students are not given the research ahead of time), and set the number of sources that students have to use in their presentation. There is also significantly less reading than a research paper and therefore they do not require the same amount of grading time if assigned earlier in the semester, allowing a teacher to give appropriate feedback as students are learning skills before writing a much longer paper later in the year.
Unlike the one-pager, which typically requires students to create a handwritten, hand-drawn document, an infographic takes it to the next level using word processing and graphic design skills to synthesize researched information into a visually pleasing, one-page document. It allows students to neatly include more information than the one-pager but also requires more computer skills. Like the one-pager, teachers can use it as part of the research learning process, helping students work up to a longer paper later in the year. This kind of assignment still includes expectations of paraphrasing and citing sources, but can be easily read for quick feedback. This can also be included as part of a much larger project, with completion of the infographic coming early in the research paper writing process.
For years I had my students do long group presentations over 20th and 21st-century genocides after their post-Night research papers were completed. That always resulted in a long, sobering week of important historical information that got to be too much for everyone, including me. In my last year teaching that particular course, I decided to change it up by having the groups create podcasts over their research instead. While it wasn’t necessarily less time-consuming for me to grade, it did make the presentation portion of the assignment easier to digest, taking a single block period to have students listen to a select number of their peers’ podcasts and respond to them. This option had the additional benefit of being genuinely fun for a lot of my students, eliminating performance anxiety for some and feeding into the creativity of others as they worked with completely different technology for an English class.
I have used Google Sites for everything from student writing portfolios to semester-long research projects. I have discovered that breaking down much larger research papers into pages within a website helps students with the often overwhelming task of synthesizing several resources at once. Students will sometimes write more on a website because they are able to structure it in a way that makes sense, often considering more points because they are dealing with each part of their paper in chunks as opposed to an overwhelming whole.
Using alternatives to the traditional research paper doesn’t mean watering down the research writing process; often it can make the process more complex and meaningful. It allows students to consider ways in which research is actually utilized in the world outside of their school building, whether it is an infographic for a magazine article, a true crimes podcast series, or a company or government website. Doing non-traditional research writing, in addition to traditional research papers, enriches student learning and gives a tangible example of why we require them to write research papers in the first place. It shows them, in a very real way, how essential research is to their daily lives as students, citizens, and members of the workforce. It also arms them with skills that many of us didn’t have going through school: the ability to apply our research skills outside of the walls of our English classes.