8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers
by Dorothy Mikuska
There are plenty of reasons why the research paper is not assigned. They pretty much boil down to:
- perceived irrelevance of the assignment in light of modern publishing and technology
- widespread plagiarism
- teachers buried alive grading 10-page papers from 150 students (that’s 1500 pages to grade, not just read).
Before the research paper is declared dead and deleted from the curriculum in pursuit of briefer and more tech-based learning, here are 8 important reasons why students should still write research papers.
8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers
1. Complex Reading Skills Are Applied to Multiple Sources
The research paper requires close reading of complex text from multiple sources, which students must comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. These tasks, more sophisticated than merely summarizing an article for a report, reflect the complex work demands of college and career.
2. It Creates A Research Mind Set
Research is finding answers to questions: how many teeth does a killer whale have—Google will give the number 52. Real research deals with deeper and broader issues than finding isolated facts. Students must learn to think of research as investigating profound and complex issues.
3. It Can Promote Curiosity
From early childhood, curiosity drives the search to understand increasingly complex questions, to constantly question information, and to explore more sources and experts. The research paper provides a structured, yet independent opportunity for students to pursue in depth some extended aspect of the course content.
4. The Librarian Can Be A Life-Long Resource
Students often see librarians merely at the check-out desk or collecting fines. Librarians are specialists at both accessing extensive sources from a variety of media and reinforcing the teaching of responsible use of information and technology. Because they work with students every day and are the center of the school’s curriculum, they can direct students to appropriate sources. As a researcher’s best buddy, librarians are gatekeepers and trackers of information and can turn every question into a teachable moment.
5. The Power of Attribution
Undocumented information that students encounter online—social media postings, tweets, blogs and popular media—artificially narrows their experience to opinions and anonymous writers. Students never see citations on a tweet or a bibliographical reference in People magazine. Research conducted in the career world requires not just expert information, but the attribution of sources through in-text citations and bibliographies. As students use sources that model research material with annotations and bibliography, they develop a questioning mindset: who said that, where did that come from, and where can I find more?
6. It Builds Related Skills
Unskilled researchers collect downloaded files and perhaps highlight passages, sometimes indiscriminately whole paragraphs or pages, without understanding the text. This method may work for a cursory summary of an article or for identifying key points, but not for synthesizing information from ten sources for an in-depth report.
File formats can make annotating text awkward. Even if notes can be easily added in the text, students will struggle scrolling through multiple files to synthesize scattered information, resulting in a collection of summaries from each source rather than an integrated understanding of the topic.
Formal note taking, necessary for extended and rigorous research papers, keeps track of information as quotations and paraphrases, identifies the unique content of each note, connects it to other notes with keywords, and identifies the source that can be cited in the paper and added to the bibliography.
An added value of note taking lies in the learning process. By reviewing notes with the same keywords, students can synthesize the material into an organized plan for the paper.
7. Plagiarism and Intellectual Property Rights Matter
Because of plagiarism’s prevalence in student work, it may be easier not to assign research papers. However, plagiarism and intellectual property rights issues, whether related to research papers or music and video piracy, need to be a major conversation throughout the curriculum.
Students do not understand what plagiarism is, its consequences to their learning and character, why everyone makes a big deal over it, and how to avoid it. While direct instruction teaches what plagiarism is, students must put into practice ethical research writing. The research paper process provides students and teachers the opportunity to discuss intellectual property rights and ethics as part of the assignment.
8. Coaching The Writing Process Is Powerful
The research paper is not just an assignment, but a commitment to continual dialog between teachers and students. Teachers as research paper coaches can explore their students’ understanding, interpretation, and synthesis of their reading, discuss their choice of sources and note taking strategies, evaluate their work incrementally, and model ethical paraphrasing and summary skills.
The research paper can be frightening, even paralyzing for some students with little or disappointing previous experiences. Teachers as coaches can make students feel comfortable taking control of the conversation and believing their voice and work are important.
By personalizing instruction to ensure student success throughout the process, and by students taking control of their work because they have important information to report, students are eager to share what they have learned. Poorly researched papers with little to say are poorly written or plagiarized. Coached students will write papers that their teachers will want to read.
The Research Paper in the Information Age
The research paper is about information found, understood, and explained to others, a way to authentically extend the course content and purpose.
The private and public sectors consume and create carefully written research. Feasibility studies, like the possibility of marketing sausage casings in India, laboratory or field research, inquiries to determine educational, political, or banking policies—all are formats of the research paper that organizations use to make critical decisions. Before reporting new information, published reports with requisite citations and bibliography begin with what experts have already contributed to the issue.
Since this is the intellectual milieu our students will enter after graduation, they should be prepared for the complex reading, research, thinking, and writing skills they will need.
Dorothy Mikuska taught high school English including the research paper for 37 years. After retirement she formed ePen&Inc and created PaperToolsPro, software for students to employ the literacy skills of slow, reflective reading needed to write good research papers; 8 Reasons Why Students Should Still Write Research Papers; image attribution flickr user samladner
I. Structure and Approach
The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:
- What is this?
- Why should I read it?
- What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?
Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.
These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:
1. Establish an area to research by:
- Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
- Making general statements about the topic, and/or
- Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.
2. Identify a research niche by:
- Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
- Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
- Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
- Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
3. Place your research within the research niche by:
- Stating the intent of your study,
- Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
- Describing important results, and
- Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.
NOTE: Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.
II. Delimitations of the Study
Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.
Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.
Examples of delimitating choices would be:
- The key aims and objectives of your study,
- The research questions that you address,
- The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
- The method(s) of investigation,
- The time period your study covers, and
- Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.
Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!
NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.
ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"
III. The Narrative Flow
Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:
- Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
- Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
- Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
- Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.
IV. Engaging the Reader
The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:
- Open with a compelling story,
- Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
- Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
- Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
- Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.
NOTE: Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.
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