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When I was a kid, I hated research papers. I hated the paint-by-numbers rules we had to follow. I hated the fact that I couldn’t choose the topic or ask the questions or find the sources. I hated the notecards and the binders and everything else that stripped the wonder and curiosity of research. This is what ultimately led me to an alternative idea to the student research paper.

Why Student Research Papers Fail

  • The process is too rigid. Strategies should be inherently flexible.
  • The audience isn’t real. I’m not one who thinks that ever assignment needs an authentic audience. However, most student research papers have an audience of one.
  • The students have very little agency. They rarely get to pick the topic, the types of sources, or the questions being asked. A teacher might say, “Well, they got to choose an animal.” But what if they don’t want to write about an animal? What if they want to research natural disasters or magnetism?
  • Everyone is doing the same paper with slight variations. In other words, students don’t get a chance to decide how it should be organized and what it should look like. The process becomes formulaic.

Seven Ways We Can Fix the Student Research Paper

As a teacher, I decided we would do research differently. Here are a few things I decided:

  1. Let students geek out. They should choose the topics based upon something they are curious about.
  2. Encourage inquiry. Allow students to ask their own questions based upon their natural curiosity.
  3. Keep the process flexible. Students should choose their own process based upon what works best for them.
  4. Help students see that bias exists in sources. Let them embrace the inherent conflict in information. Too often, kids see information as true/false, black/white. Let them wrestle with the credibility of a source.
  5. Connect outside of the classroom walls. Encourage students to find primary sources online.
  6. Don’t make it a paper. In other words, have students would make something in the end. So, from start to finish, research would be something inherently creative.
  7. Start research papers at the beginning of the year instead of making it an end-of-the-year process.

As mention before, I start research papers at the beginning of the year. We do a “Wonder Day” (sometimes it takes two class periods) where students tap into their own curiosity while learning the research process. You can see it below.

Please leave your email address below and click the yellow subscribe button to receive the free inquiry-based Wonder Day / Wonder Week project. It includes the process and the handout you can use with students. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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