Transform Your Classroom: Assign a Research Paper


At a time when our students can access information with the click of a button or the swipe of a finger we must dedicate our classrooms to evaluation and synthesis in place of traditional memorization. In many states, Social Studies courses are largely untested and, where they exist, most state exams lack the rigor necessary to prepare students for college. For years my students earned fantastic state test scores and then went on to college unprepared to write a referenced-based expository essay. When my first group of 10th graders returned at the winter break of their first year at college and said “Why didn’t you teach us how to write papers?!? It’s all we do in college!” I knew I needed to make a fundamental shift in the way I was teaching. Since that time, I have made research papers the cornerstone of how I teach. Each unit involves some kind of expository essay that requires students to cite sources.

  • Research papers are excellent means to bring the Common Core’s close read and non-fiction texts to the Social Studies classroom.
  • Research papers prepare students for the real work of college. Think back to your own experience with humanities classes in college: how many essays did you write in a given semester?

Research papers work best when they become the center of your classroom practice as opposed to the “icing on the cake.” Begin by having students read a number of model papers using the format and citation style you will require in place of other readings. Continue by collectively scoring a sample paper using the same rubric you will grade their papers with; this could be done whole group with some partner or group CFUs. I have also set up a gallery walk of “Introductions” one day, “Body Paragraphs” the next and finally “Conclusions” and had students walk around the classroom grading in groups and then checking scores against mine at the end of the walk. The point is for students to be extremely familiar with both the format and the rubric before they begin.

Below I have outlined how the research paper process happens in my high school Social Studies classroom however I think, with a few tweaks, the system could be adapted for younger grades:

Picking a Topic:

  • While it is certainly easier to simply assign students topics, allowing them to struggle through figuring out what interests them is critical. I try to have one or two individual conferences on this topic because I’ve found making sure they get a manageable topic is half the battle. I recommend students select topics that:
    • Begin as a topic and end up as a question after a preliminary research
    • Do not have a clear “yes” or “no” answer
    • Are potentially local in scope. (i.e. “What was the incidence of PTSD in Hispanic veterans of the Vietnam War from McAllen, Texas?” is much better than “How did Vietnam impact soldiers?”)
    • Narrow, even extremely narrow, scope. Students need a lot of help with this and I often struggle to advise them. I always ask myself, “Is this something a PhD student would consider too broad?” It is much harder to write a quality paper on a question like “What were the causes of the American Civil War?” Students do better with a question like “What were the direct outcomes of the battle of Gettysburg?”
    • Have students pick a general topic and then spend a week generating a specific research question to investigate by 1) reading Wikipedia articles (so easy! So good for this! And don’t turn your nose up at it, it’s what we do too . . . just don’t let them use Wikipedia as an actual source) and 2) gathering/reading reliable sources.
    • When you conference with them have them show you what sources they’ve found and begin to work together to form a research question out of their general topic.

Writing the Paper:

  • Provide students with a model: I distribute copies of a high scoring paper from a previous year (the first time, I wrote it myself) as well as the rubric on which it was graded. I instruct students to look at its format as they write their own paper.
  • Provide students with time in class to write each chunk: The class where they wrote the intro would look like this:
    • Do Now: students read, annotate, and score to the rubric ONLY the introduction of the model research paper – debrief and reveal what it actually scored in whole group
    • Model: take about 10 minutes to model how you would go about writing an intro. In past years, I’ve written a research paper (on a question and topic I actually found interesting) along side my students. Actually type it or write it long hand in front of them. Show them how what you are doing meets the requirements for an excellent introduction.
    • Work in Partners: I allow students to write with the support of a peer. Often times, they don’t need this additional support however it can be extremely helpful for those who need to talk through what they are doing.
    • Check progress at the end of class and require students to bring a typed, completed draft to class the next day. Ideally, they’ll have finished in class, if not, its homework. In the next lesson add a quick peer review for grammatical conventions before the Do Now and then proceed to the model Body Paragraph. Students who come to class unprepared loose the right to work with peers and should be closely monitored throughout the next lesson.
    • I’ve found the above process typically takes a week. On the last day, have students spend the class doing a peer review of what is now their completed rough draft. They then go into the weekend with the assignment of making changes as needed.
    • On the following Monday, we talk through common pitfalls (lack of evidence, weak sources, no analysis, floating quotations, poor citation style, etc.) by having 2 – 3 randomly (or not) selected students put their drafts on the document camera in front of the class. Students then work in pairs to make structural changes.

Evaluating the Paper

  • Grade the research papers with a highlighter and a rubric. On the back of the rubric make a list of the most common mistakes (misspellings, capitalization is incorrect, floating quotations, etc.) and simply highlight the item on the list when students make the mistake. Taking time to mark up every paper will quadruple your grading time and make you less likely to assign a second (much less a third, fourth or fifth) research paper.
  • When you pass the papers back, grade your own paper publicly and have them grade their paper along side of you. They should fill out a rubric as they grade. Collect their self-graded rubrics and then begin to call them up for individual debriefs. It is always SO SO much easier to deliver verbal feedback to students than to spend 10 minutes writing a detailed note. I talk and they take notes as I talk. I’ve found these one-on-one conferences to be THE most effective instruction I do when it comes to writing of any kind.

What tips do you have for writing research papers in your classroom and context?

*The post above is adapted from a resource I put together for KIPP:Share.

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One thought on “Transform Your Classroom: Assign a Research Paper

  1. […] been mulling over recently. It was  Spring and I’d just passed back feedback for the big research papers my students were writing. Before students turned in their papers I passed out a “No […]

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