Alternatives to the Research Paper

As an intrinsically motivated undergrad, I did not really appreciate what an oddball I was until I began teaching undergraduates myself. Unlike me back in the day, many of my students did not complete their readings. Their library research was frequently (ahem) misguided. They weren’t always wound up about good punctuation in APA style either. I was surprised. I was dismayed! Fortunately for my students (at least I like to think so) I reset my thinking pretty quickly. After all, it was me, not them; it was my unrealistic expectations of them based on my own experiences.

There is a reason why undergraduates (like me) move on to non-professional graduate degrees: It’s because they love research and reading, and they are probably pretty good at it. But these flavours of students are simply not among the majority of those we teach. Most want to get out into the “real world” after their degrees. So why do we treat all students as if they aspire to graduate school?

I would venture that most of us who teach undergraduates are operating more or less from the same mental model of what undergraduate learning should look like. It should give students a foundation in our discipline. It should prepare students — the ones who are like us — for further higher learning by cultivating discipline-specific forms of critical thinking, deepening and broadening disciplinary knowledge, and taking the first steps toward independent scholarship.

To achieve these ends, we turn to that age-old assignment, the “research paper.” When I was an undergraduate, as a free-range nerd, I couldn’t get enough of these things. And I have taught students who similarly take to library research like dogs on bones. They write good stuff. But most of our students struggle with research papers — in part because they are rarely afforded systematic instruction in good writing and research during their studies, and in part because they can’t see the point of doing these activities anyway.

Undergraduate research papers recognize and reward the skills and abilities that will serve students well in future academic work. We evaluate the qualities of their arguments, the logic of their presentations, and the clarity of their writing. By senior levels, we are looking for the “right” sources to be cited — those that show the student is gaining competence in library research, and pulling on the key thinkers, theories and ideas that inform our fields. And of course they must learn both the ethics and technicalities of citing sources. As an undergrad preparing for further study, I would value these outcomes. I would take them seriously, recognizing that they were preparing me for my goals. Like I said. I loved researching and preparing papers.

But what about those students who aren’t like me? The ones who aren’t like you? Here are some of the things that we are not preparing them for with research papers:

  • Capacities for empathy and creativity that allow them to work with many different kinds of people
  • The ability to orally communicate their ideas to others, both formally and informally
  • The capacity to make connections between messy, disparate, “interdisciplinary” ideas, given that those connections may not be readily obvious
  • The ability to generate ideas and create things in teams
  • Creative problem-solving

It’s easy to flick away these ideas. One might argue that it isn’t the professor’s job to prepare student for the “real world.” Further, in an increasingly corporatized university climate, “preparing students for the real world” can take on an oppressive hue. At what point do the essences of scholarship become compromised when learning is never promoted for its own sake? These are not trivial debates, and they aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.

In the meantime, it is still very possible to create learning experiences that meet the needs of different “kinds” of students in our class: both those headed to graduate programs, and those who hope their degrees will further other goals in their lives.

Fusing Creative Assignments with Research
What are some alternatives to the classic thesis-and-research paper? Bean (2011) offers many options: dialogues, creative fiction or non-fiction, blogs, and reflective writing assignments can be structured in ways that can push students to incorporate research and key concepts in their own words, and to synthesize these ideas into their own unique products. No more chastising students for lengthy direct quotes! For accountability, students may be required to accompany a creative work with a brief annotated bibliography, in which they cite, for example, 5-10 sources in appropriate citation style, and offer a short summary of how they used these resources to inform their thinking.

Building in Collaboration
To further students’ abilities to communicate and collaborate, consider offering the option of team assignments. If students have the choice of working solo or with a partner, you won’t have the problems that can be associated with groups/pairs going sideways. And, your students will be communicating ideas orally, writing collaboratively, and doing lots of beneficial background work. Just because you can’t see the learning directly doesn’t mean it isn’t happening!

Processes, Not Products
Instead of assessing the final products of students’ research efforts, look for mini-assignments that will give you (and them) insight into their research processes. Small assignments that can be quickly graded include:

  • Having students submit short abstracts before they get deep into writing a paper
  • An in-class reflective paragraph assignment in which students reflect on their research efforts.
  • A brief assessment of a non-academic internet source or artefact, demonstrating critical awareness of biases, strengths, weaknesses and potential applications of the source. These can be shared in groups in a class, if desired.
  • Paraphrase practice: give students in-class practice with summarizing a paragraph or two of important text in their own words. Get students to share their work with a peer, and then discuss the process as a class.

Remember that your strongest academic students will challenge themselves. As noted in the terrific video, “Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding,” it is almost impossible to stop these kinds of students from learning. They won’t be neglected though. There are no worries here about teaching only to students who struggle: You should notice that the kinds of assignments presented challenge students at all levels to show their learning, talk about their learning, and express their learning in much richer ways than can be obtained by the classic research paper alone.  And you’ll gain great insight into how your students think.

Bean, J. (2011).Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


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