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?