Sunday, May 8, 2011

Teaching Research

This last semester I finally came up with a series of assignments that taught students how to do independent research over time over the course of the semester. The research project culminated in a final research paper of five to seven pages (revised once) and a class presentation of ten minutes. Both the final papers and presentations were very successful.

Here is the set up for the assignment: students choose their own research projects, within the rough limits of the course topic. Their research must use multiple sources not assigned in class. Beginning about week three or four, I assigned a series of nine or so smaller assignments, due about every other week or so:

1. Three Possible Research Topics
2. Research Report and Research Plan (what have they done to come up with their topics, and what plan do they have to begin research, e.g., meet with a research librarian).
3. Research Topic and Research Report
4. Research Report: Incorporating Quotations and Citations (at least three in-text citations, at least three in-text quotations).
5. Annotated Bibliography and Research Report
6. Revised Research Report Topic
7. Research Project Precise
8. Revised Annotated Bibliography
9. Revised Research Project Precise

I should also add that I scheduled two class times for the whole class to meet with a research librarian to learn more about how to use the library and about how to distinguish reliable from unreliable sources.

Why did this work? Well, first, the course was capped at nineteen. I know that many folks don't get this opportunity - but maybe a stripped down version would work for courses with up to thirty-five students? Second, I was able to give feedback quickly because my feedback was directed primarily to their research rather than the mechanics of their writing (we worked on this using short three to five page papers throughout the semester). Third, it asks students to do research the way we do: slowly, over time, with much rethinking and revising of the project.

The quality of the papers was much higher than usual. In addition, the writing was far more fluid and sophisticated. Most happily, the papers incorporated citations, quotations and research in an intellectually honest and insightful way. They learned that writing about a topic informed by the literature is not the same as paraphrasing or summarizing and that one can write an original paper that reflects one's own work even while incorporating the work of others.

The presentation was key. It takes up a lot of class time - ten minutes each meant that I had to devote about five instructional hours just to presentations. They presented after their first draft but before their second draft. The presentations were excellent. Because students chose their own topics, they were eager to share their findings with the class and eager to hear what others did. The presentations also forced students to think more explicitly about the structure of their papers. The final drafts were substantially revised (a rare event) and were revised because the students had really rethought how to present their arguments and explanations.

An all around success! Have others used a similar method or other methods to encourage students to do research? Pitfalls? Successes?


  1. What class was this? Was it an upper divisional course, a gen-ed course, just for majors?

    I like the idea quite a bit. I may adapt this and try it out. However I wonder whether the success rate would vary depending on the type of course.

  2. Becko, this sounds fairly similar to the process I ask students to follow when they do preliminary research for senior theses. What you write here is key, I think:
    "They learned that writing about a topic informed by the literature is not the same as paraphrasing or summarizing and that one can write an original paper that reflects one's own work even while incorporating the work of others."

    In my experience, reaching this point is the hardest part for students. Philosophy's funny in that we don't generally expect "pure" research papers, papers that only summarize a body of literature. We expect students to give some value-added, in the form of original (or at least original to the student) interpretation, argument, etc. What I've observed is that many students bog down at the point where they need to transition from a "research paper" to a philosophy paper informed by relevant literature. It's as if they know how to describe or analyze others' views and arguments, can do some freestyle philosophizing, but can't do both in the same document. (The telltale sign of this is silo-like organization with one half the paper summarizing literature and the other half making arguments, etc., but the two halves make very little contact with one another.)

    I'd be really eager for guidance as to how to help students have an authorial voice in the midst of the relevant philosophical background. Any thoughts here?

  3. Hi, Becko and Michael,

    I just finished an intro-level Ethics course in which I used an article by Prof. Jennifer Wilson Mulnix ("Using a Writing Portfolio to Teach Critical Thinking Skills", _Teaching Philosophy_ Vol 33 No 10 (2010)) as a guide. The writing portfolio is a 9-stage assignment in which students choose their own topic. At each stage of revision, they incorporate various skills -- e.g., diagramming arguments, providing/receiving constructive peer feedback, etc. On average, a different stage of the portfolio was due every other week, culminating in the final version due at the end of the semester.

    Two of the stages deal explicitly with the effective incorporation of external source material, and so that gave me the chance to use lots of class time to address the challenge that Michael describes -- incorporating other voices somewhat organically into their work, without having their own voices drowned out. I was very pleased by how well many of the students were able to do that, but then again, they got a fair bit of feedback.

    Michael -- what helped most in this case, I think, is that the students had already written at least 4 (revised) versions of their paper BEFORE they explicitly engaged with other sources. So, by that point, they definitely viewed the main voice of the paper as theirs. And even if some of the readings led them to fundamentally rethink some of their arguments, they still managed to maintain authorial control of the paper.

  4. Good question Chris. Actually, I fess up: this was not a philosophy course. I was teaching in our first year CORE liberal arts program. But I have the sense that it could translate over.

    Michael raises some reasons why it might be harder in a philosophy course, and I share his worries. But Vance points out what I think is key: asking students to make that shift from summary and paraphrase to an authorial voice slowly over time. In particular, they wrote a lot about what they we doing, what their plan was what they had discovered, how they had changed their minds, etc. that I think this caused a significant psychological shift: they began to think of the projects as their own.

    But I could be guessing.

  5. I like this. It seems to support a strong research process. But do you mean a "précis" rather than "precise"?

  6. I did something like this while teaching First Language Acquisition during my doctoral program. I did it again (oops!) while teaching a first year seminar at my new institution, with somewhat less success the second time around.
    However, one recurrent problem is: how can students choose a topic early enough that they have time to really go through the whole process? I find for that to happen, topics have to be chosen WAY too early in the semester... opinions on this?


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