Baby Steps: Making the Research Paper an Achievable Challenge

Research Paper on Microsoft

Research Paper on Microsoft (Photo credit: acordova)

Although we, as educators and lifelong learners, know the value of writing a research paper, I have yet to hear a class cheer with joy when given the research paper assignment. Instead, students view it as an arduous task or an insurmountable challenge, and thus respond with groans of displeasure, sighs of resignation, and attacks of panicked anxiety. However, we can turn the challenge into an achievable, even pleasurable, learning experience by breaking it down into four baby steps.

Step 1: Brainstorming Topic Choices

Determine three or four topics that you would like to see your students explore in a research paper. Displaying one topic at a time, ask your class to share what they already know about it. If you have chosen topics that have been brought up in previous classes, this sharing time serves as a great review as well as a means of whetting their learning appetite. After discussing all of the topics, have each student choose one and write a short five-paragraph essay on it. Let your class know that this particular assignment is not a research paper; instead, it is a paper that comes entirely from their own brains and expresses general knowledge and life experiences in an organized way. By giving this assignment with a specific due date, your students cannot put off beginning the actual research paper assignment until the last minute. They have already begun it—albeit unknowingly.winkerbeanlaffoon

Furthermore, you have greatly reduced the chances of your students writing nothing of their own and merely producing a cut-and-paste job from various internet sources.

Step 2:  Preparing to Add Sources

Divide students into small groups to read each other’s essays and discuss how they can improve them. Next, have students exchange papers and draw a star at any spot where the paper could be strengthened by either adding support to a claim or providing some specific data (e.g., statistical information). Explain that since that they have searched their brains on a specific topic, they are now ready to research—which means to search again—and find outside sources to use at each spot where they have drawn a star. Let them know the minimum number of sources you require. If some of your students have not yet taken English 102, it’s a good idea to have a discussion on credible and non-credible sources. Demonstrate how easy it is to find non-credible sources by doing a Google search on something that will lead to a bogus website (e.g, male pregnancy or cities in Antarctica); then demonstrate how easy it is to find credible sources by going to HCC’s library databases.laffoon2


Step 3:  Incorporating Sources

Play “Plain English, Please.” Display one paragraph from your textbook or another source. Ask your class to paraphrase the first sentence by using their own words and their own sentence structure. After they paraphrase another sentence or two, ask them to summarize the whole paragraph in one sentence using their own words. Next, have them look at a page or two of a sample research paper and highlight direct quotes in one color and paraphrases or summaries in another color. Ask them how they knew when a sentence was a paraphrase and when it was a statement from the student writer’s own brain. They should observe that each time the writer paraphrased a source, she gave credit to that source. Ask how the writer did that. They should point out that she named the source in the sentence itself or put the source in parentheses at the end of the sentence. Finally, ask them to incorporate the sources they have found at the starred spots in their essays; use a mix of direct quotations, paraphrases, and summaries; and give credit to their sources each time they quote, paraphrase, or summarize them.

Step 4:  Writing the Bibliography

Play one of the following bibliography games: “Teach the Teacher” or “Bibliography Bloopers.” To play the first game, display a source on the overhead and have your class teach you how to write the source’s information on the bibliography page, walking you through the exact order and punctuation (“First write the author’s last name, comma, first name, period”) as you type the page.


Bibliography (Photo credit: gadl)

The dumber you act, the more fun the game becomes. To play the second game, give each pair of students a bibliography page with two or three sources, each containing three errors which they must identify, such as missing quotation marks around an article’s title, the publisher’s state instead of city, and a missing period. With both games, students get to use a “cheat sheet”: their reference book. Their final assignment is to correctly type their bibliography page, alphabetically listing the sources they used for their research paper.


2 comments on “Baby Steps: Making the Research Paper an Achievable Challenge

  1. Brian says:

    This is beautifully done in every way. B

  2. […] Baby Steps: Making the Research Paper an Achievable Challenge ( […]

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