April 21, 2008

The Dreaded Research Paper

Midwest Teacher over at Teach Me, I Dare You is stressing out of research papers. Haven't I blogged about my struggles in this area before? I can't find anything good to link... In any case, I can relate to Midwest Teacher's so well, I thought she might be hanging out in my brain, mocking me!

My students had a rocky start on their research papers this year because of the changed test dates fiasco and our commitment to the team project. As a little background, the team project was based in the foreign language classes where students made travel video for a French or Spanish speaking country. In my class students were asked to find an issue (political, environmental, economic, environmental, or social) from that country to write a problem/solution paper and create a public service announcement that will be attached to their travel videos on the presentation day.

I felt that this topic would be something the students might be interested in because they had choice in the countries they chose for their travel videos, and it would be the type of paper that they could not easily plagiarizes from another source. I was a bit apprehensive that students would have difficulty finding information, but this didn't turn out to be an issue at all.

With some inspiration from my supervisor after a conversation about the dreaded research paper and plagiarism, I made the research process a whole lot bigger than I ever have. In the past, I have gone through the process, yes, but the product weighed the most. This year I decided to put more focus on the process. So, there were many checkpoints along the way:
  • Preliminary topic search (basic information found before deciding on a topic)
  • Online search reflection (focus on using various searching tools)
  • Project proposal
  • Source validity/strength evaluation (necessary with web sources)
  • Working thesis and outline
  • Notes and bibliography card check
  • Writer's group with draft #1 (looking for ideas)
  • Submit draft #1 to teacher for feedback
  • Annotate bibliography (another reflective tool for student to evaluate their sources)
  • Writer's group with draft #2--should be nearly finished
  • Submit draft #2 to teacher for feedback
  • Submit draft #3 to teacher (Best possible draft. This could be the final draft for A/B papers.)
  • Final Draft
  • Project Reflection (process/learning document for students to reflect--also useful for us teachers)
**The public service video was a separate assignment from this, and because our timeline was all messed up by circumstances beyond our control, the students actually made their 30-60 second videos based on their notes before they wrote their papers. Trust me on this, compared to their 8-12 minute travel video, the psa was not a huge effort.

The process seemed to go on and on, and I thought my student teacher, who is the one who actually had to implement most of this thing, was going to tear her hair out. (She came to work today without her braids, so uhm, I think she may have literally done so.) Her complaints were that she would give students feedback, and they would continue to turn papers in with the same problems. Mostly we're talking about places where ideas needed to be developed or clarified with sources. What's worse is that there are several students who simply refused to turn in papers. They don't really refuse; I suppose it's more like dodging the teacher who is trying to get a straight answer about missing papers. How can we help students who cannot help themselves? They don't seem to be complaining that they don't understand. They simply aren't doing it. I don't know why, but I suspect that this paper requires them to do too much work and too much thinking.

In the past, I've tried to streamline this research process because I know it's boring. I think it might have made it too fast.

In the past, I've tried to drag the whole process out over a quarter. It's a miracle we all lived.

What I planned this year is a combination of the two. It was about a month long. It was pretty step-by-step with reflection built in so that students might remember the process that they will streamline on their own in the future. I know my students do a lot of research projects in their other classes, but I wanted to make sure that they could these two things:
  1. Find and analyze valid, relevant, and reliable resources on the Internet.
  2. Develop opinions and support them using resources in a standard written format.
Sounds so simple, right? I'm don't know why my students couldn't follow the step-by-step approach--especially with all the built-in guidance! I only delivered about 15% of the unit, so I don't know if who did the delivery was an issue, but it truly seemed like the student teacher was doing a fine job. Sure, I might have done a few things differently, but she didn't do anything that would have seriously impeded the students from succeeding in this project.

I like this research paper--and the process we went through--better than anything I've done in quite a while. I'm not ready to give up on it, and after I collect project reflections, I hope to glean some ideas about how to tweak it to work better next year. What to do about this year? I don't know. With so many students not finding success, I can't help wondering about the teaching methods, which actually falls on my student teacher, but with my guidance, it's on me, too.

Will I ever conquer this research paper monster?

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