Revisiting the Research Paper Problem for College Students as Writers

About 15 years ago, my university overhauled the curriculum and academic calendar, including dropping the traditional English 101/102 approach to composition for a first-year seminar structure.

That moved the responsibility for teaching composition out of the English Department solely and across the entire university (a problem of writing pedagogy that the university didn’t acknowledge until several years later). Initially students were required to take two first-year seminars, one writing intensive and another that allowed students and professors to explore their passions.

The non-writing seminar was popular, but ultimately not sustainable so when the curriculum was updated a few years ago, we dropped the non-writing FYS and added an upper-level writing and research course requirement to better support teaching writing at the college level.

I have been teaching writing formally for 39 years, 18 years as a high school ELA teacher and currently 21 years and counting at the college level. Therefore, I have a great deal of experience and knowledge about teaching writing as part of a transition from high school to college (see recommended posts below).

As a high school ELA teacher, I focused on teaching writing, and for my advanced students, I worked diligently to prepare them for college. I am proud that many students returned during college and confirmed that they were better prepared as writers than many of their peers.

Embedded in that, of course, is that many students then—and now— enter college not well prepared to write at the college level. In fact, much of my work in my first-year writing seminar is helping students unlearn beliefs and practices about writing that helped them be very successful in high school—but that were guaranteed to be far less effective in college.

A significant part of that needed transition is the misguided “research paper” approach to writing cited essay and an overemphasis of the singular importance of MLA as a style and citation guide.

Elements of the inauthentic “research paper” model of writing cited essays include the following:

  • Students following templates and prescribed steps to gathering sources and producing a paper in MLA format.
  • Students writing with a stilted style that focuses on their “research” and “sources” instead of incorporating sources as authoritative evidence in an original essay and purpose.
  • Students using a “one source at a time” organization and discussion pattern that focuses on covering the sources instead of writing an original essay.

I address these issues directly in my FYW, scaffolding the course from a first essay that is personal narrative, to an essay citing entirely with hyperlinks, and then to a formally cited scholarly essay in which they use APA style and citation.

That FYW experience in my course is transitional and foundational, and I would say moderately effective. But I also recognize that teaching composition at the college level is not a mere inoculation; one course over 3-4 months cannot a scholarly writer make.

So I am always eager to work with my upper-level writing/research course—where every class I am confronted with how powerful the “research paper” model of writing remains in students two or three years into college.

Just yesterday, my students in the upper-level writing/research course turned in their major cited essay grounded in their course project—analyzing and evaluating how media covers a key education topic.

The course is heavily structured and scaffolded to help students write a very advanced and difficult cited essay. Part of that structure is that I almost daily remind them that the focus of their work is media analysis, which I punctuate with “You are not writing a research paper on your education topic.”

As has become expected in this course, however, students mostly submitted research papers on their education topics and tended to write using the strategies I identified above that they learned in high school—mostly writing about their sources (even calling them “sources) and simply covering all their sources one at a time.

Many students almost entirely failed to even mention media, and they all continue to struggle with the complex expectations for writing an original analysis and evaluating media coverage—especially the stylistic differences they need to practice in different sections of the essay.

Here is the full assignment and guiding support for the assignment (which I revised and refine every time I teach the course):


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); must be fully cited (prefer synthesis and avoid presenting one source at a time) and address all scholarly sources included in references

media analysis – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples; directly identify media outlets and journalists

media evaluation (relationship between research and media) – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so evaluate the media coverage by implementing your knowledge of the scholarship (do not refer to “research” or “sources”); must be fully cited

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

You MUST follow APA guidelines; please refer to this SAMPLE.

And please review this CHECKLIST.

Assignment Submission Guidelines

Research project essay: Submit research project cited essay in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “research project essay” in the subject line. See APA 7e guidelines here and Sample APA 7e with commentsSubmit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname essay.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Peer conferencing cited essay in class; have a copy of your cited essay (hard copy or on your device) to peer review with classmates.

Checklist for peer-review:

[ ] Formatted with 2 page breaks (after title page and after last page, before references)

[ ] Opening: narrative and focus/thesis identifying media coverage of educational topic

[ ] Four level two subheads: lit review, media analysis, relationship of media and research (key section of the essay), and closing

[ ] Fully use *all* sources and fully cite throughout the essay

[ ] APA formatting

I am very clear and address directly that the assignment is challenging, in many ways preparing students for graduate school. But I also believe this is an important entry point to writing well as an undergradute.

Students spend the first half of the course exploring writing (we examine scholarly personal narrative) and study educational research; they also carefully research both scholarly evidence on their education topic while gathering recent examples of media coverage.

Their first major assignment is to produce an annotated bibliography of those sources, and I stress that this is a process scholars use to support writing their essays (noting that creating an annotated bibliography is for them as writer and scholars, not just an assignment to follow).

The sections—literature review, media analysis, media evaluation—force them to write with different styles within one essay.

Some students struggle with focusing rhetorically on the patterns found in their scholarly sources for the literature review; they tend still to write about the sources and walk through them one at a time.

The media analysis requires that they do close textual analysis (a much different style than the literature review). We ground that in critical discourse analysis [Theory and Practice in Critical Discourse Analysis (PowerPoint)], but they also tend here simply to summarize the media examples one at a time, not focusing on patterns or how media covers the topic.

Along with not being adept with analysis, they do not understand that using sources is a way to lend authority to their own evaluation. Some of this is rhetorical since they want to say “research shows” instead of allowing the parenthetical citation to support their wording.

As I have noted before, students would be much better served if high school set aside the reductive research paper method and instead established some concepts for students about how and why academic and scholarly writing incorporates sources into writing:

  • Explain to students that citation formats are a subset of style guidelines that are discipline specific. MLA, for example, is often required in high school English classes because it is the style guide favored in some of the humanities. I forefront for students the stylistic expectations of style guides in the context of disciplinary expectations (APA uses dates in parenthetical citations because when a study is conducted is important in the social sciences, for example) and stress that many of the formatting quirks of a style guide are tedious and thus not to be memorized. In short, students need to learn to use style guides as a reference, not “learn MLA,” etc.
  • Focus on centering academic and scholarly writing around questions that the essay will explore and answer instead of declarative thesis sentences. Students as young scholars benefit from a humble and nuanced pose versus asserting a level of certainty that they simply do not yet have.
  • Foster an understanding of a wide range of ways to offer evidence and support in academic writing. Since many students write cited essays as literary/textual analysis in their English classes, they “learn” that the only or most important evidence is quoting—yet quoting from social science sources is not recommended in APA or even relevant. In fact, writing expectations in many disciplines prefer students synthesizing multiple sources into they own words to show a body of evidence. Paraphrasing and citing multiple sources shows sophistication and understanding that simply summarizing one source at a time cannot.
  • Stress that citation in original writing is a tool, not the goal of writing. As writers they need to start with clear content purposes that then lead to searching for sources that help them gain the knowledge and authority to write a compelling essay. They should move away from “my sources say” to “I know this” and include citations to stand on the shoulder of giants.

My university’s shift from English Department-based composition to first-year seminars has had many stumbles and falls, but the core principle of moving writing instruction across all the disciplines is essentially far more authentic.

As my assignment above demonstrates, academic and scholarly writing often is a blend of modes and purposes that demand a great deal from a purposeful and effective writer.

This sort of writing is very challenging, and students would benefit from being introduced early to these concepts so that so much of college instruction need no longer be spent helping them unlearn the “research paper” method.


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Transitioning from High School to College: (Re)considering Citation Edition

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

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