My Love-Hate Relationship with Virginia’s Research Paper Requirement

‘Tis SOL season once again, and for many of my eleventh grade students, that means they are working on their research papers. Philosophically, I have no problem with the state’s imposing such a requirement. Ideally, putting together a research paper will help students learn how to organize and draw conclusions from the available information — a vital skill if these students are to become good citizens. In practice, however, I don’t often see my students getting a lot of practical guidance from their English teachers, and that creates a big headache for me. Granted, the teachers around here usually do an okay job teaching kids the required format, and I generally don’t see my students floundering around with poor sources (nobody, in other words, is grabbing facts from Wikipedia). But when it comes to actually reading their sources and identifying what’s important, my kids have no clue at all.

Last fall, the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers released a study that I think gets right to the heart of my own struggles with the dreaded research paper. What they found was that English teachers in grades 9, 10, and 11 generally eschew close analysis in favor of personal responses or contextual discussion. For example, if a class is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the English instructor is more likely to teach his or her students historical facts about the Jim Crow South than to encourage a deep reading of the text itself.

What the ALSCW has found here certainly lines up with my own observations. Unless a student happens to be in a pre-AP or an AP English class, they are never asked to discuss the ways in which an author uses the tools of language to get his or her message across — and they are never asked to annotate what they are reading. Instead, most of my average students are getting the canned Cliff Notes version of each work’s plot, characters, theme, etc. There is no authentic engagement. No wonder they can’t understand the scholarly articles they print off of ProQuest! They’ve never been expected to struggle with challenging texts.

And things only get worse once my students get around to writing their drafts. Our local crop of English teachers has exerted some effort when it comes to teaching kids basic organization; my students are usually required to create source cards and sort them into separate paragraphs, and most of the time, they are also given plug-and-chug outlines to fill out. But the schools do a very poor job when it comes to teaching organization at the intra-paragraph level. My students have no sense of what “flows” best, and so they will dutifully insert their facts into their outlines without actually putting them into a sensible order and without writing smooth transitions from fact to fact. When a student’s draft finally hits my desk, I usually have to spend a few hours rearranging sentences and inserting some basic transition phrases so it doesn’t sound like the student is just drawing up an undirected grocery list. Whence comes this struggle? I think today’s students are very ill-aquainted with the principles of writing good persuasive non-fiction. Because they are not asked to read texts analytically, they simply don’t know how an effective argument is constructed.

And here’s a final problem with the research paper requirement: The various drafts are difficult for teachers to grade. This year, one of my students was required to turn in three drafts before he turned in his final for state assessment. As you can imagine, this meant that his teacher only had time to put vague comments like “Needs more sources!” or “Can you explain further?” on each draft — comments whose meaning I was forced to spend a great deal of time divining once the student in question brought those graded drafts to my center. Either these teachers need dedicated graders, or they simply need to devote more time to the research paper. Make it a year-long ongoing project rather than something we have to rush to complete towards the end of the year.

Again, I think the research paper is a good idea. But we definitely need to work out some serious kinks before our students will get anything truly substantive out of the requirement.

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