The Good Student Trap: Research Paper Edition

I teach good students.

I write that with no sarcasm, or cynicism.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching at a selective liberal arts university, and the students are mostly high-achieving young adults who graduated high school as A or B students.

Like me, my students also have a tendency toward the often ignored consequences of being gifted or smart—anxiety, depression, imposter’s syndrome, perfectionism.

While “good student” is a compliment, I remain convinced that performing as a good student is also, as Adele Scheele argued, a trap. Scheele posed that students learn good student habits in high school that they then apply in college, but often find those behaviors no longer are successful—or even valued by professors:

We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

But more powerful that acknowledging that good student behavior doesn’t translate into college, Scheele also confronts how the good student trap creates irrational fear:

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do—if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

I often watch these dynamics with my first-year students, which I anticipate. But the most dramatic example of this tension is in my upper-level writing/research course, notably when students submit this assignment:


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources)

media coverage – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples

relationship between research and media – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so connect research and media examples

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

Assignment for EDU 250, Paul Thomas, Furman University

Despite the highly structured details in the assignment, and despite students having several class sessions devoted to workshopping the assignment (and two scaffolded assignments—submitting a working references list and submitting annotated bibliographies for their sources), they struggle with completing the assignment as assigned, resulting in intense and negative responses to the feedback I provide on the first full submission.

The good student trap experienced by students here is that instead of conducting, writing, and submitting a media analysis project, students fall back to writing a high school research paper.

The reductive and inauthentic research paper students learn in high school is essentially behaving and writing like a student—collecting and writing an overview of “sources,” typically plowing through those sources one at a time and heavily quoting from each source.

The assignment I ask students to engage in requires that they move away from student behaviors and toward writing as scholars; that shift means that they gather and student scholarly sources in order to provide themselves a lens for writing an original essay (in this case, becoming expert on an educational topic in order to analyze the quality of media coverage of that topic).

For example, students tend to write “research papers” that explicitly state “my sources” and “my media articles” in order to detail “what I learned about X topic” instead of analyzing how media covers that topic.

My feedback includes nudging them (again) not to write like students, stressing that they are not doing the assignment (I refer them to the outline provided and the need to focus on “media analysis”), and warning them about citation concerns (including carelessness that rises to technical plagiarism).

With my feedback, the fear and negative response cycle kicks in. Students seem unable to trust a workshop environment in which draft submission, feedback, and revision are not only expected but required.

The good student trap has also trained students to see all feedback as evaluation, judgment, and to fear that not being immediately perfect is a signal that they have failed, or that they are going to fail.

Anticipating their fear and expecting they received my feedback negatively, I emailed them and assured them that revision was expected and that everyone was still capable of making an A in the course regardless of how well their initial submission had fulfilled the assignment.

In the first class after returning their essays with comments, however, they were mostly frantic; many of their comments were dramatic distortions of the feedback they received.

None the less, once they had their draft in front of them, they admitted seeing the gap between the assignment and what they submitted was much clearer to them.

So here is what my good students teach me over and over.

First, they confirm that prescriptions and templates are not nearly as effective as many people believe; I have always rejected prescriptions, templates, rubrics, and prompts for teaching writing—despite their all being common in traditional classrooms.

Students respond better to direct instruction once they have an artifact in front of them for context.

Next, they demonstrate for me the negative power of prior behavior that is successful, regardless of the credibility of that behavior. In this case, students struggle mightily to let go of the research paper.

And finally, they embody the paralysis of fear of not being good enough, not being perfect.

Unless traditional schooling changes—and I suspect it will not—I am faced with this reality continuing, and ultimately, I regret that the ones who suffer most in the good student trap are students themselves.