Short and simple

Teachers no longer assign research papers of more than a few pages, writes Leigh Muzslay of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Many teachers lack the time and energy to assign and grade research papers. There are too many state-required lessons to plow through and too many kids to teach. And more and more, students lack basic writing skills.

. . . (Fred) Franke’s U.S. history students write no more than a page.

“Even in some cases, it’s difficult to get a complete sentence,” Franke said. “If it’s multiple choice or matching they’ll do it, but if you give any kind of homework assignment that requires them to read and answer questions, they won’t do it. It’s unbelievable.”

Three-quarters of high school seniors never get writing assignments in history or social studies, according to a 2003 report.

Even in their English classes, many students only get short writing assignments. A few weeks before Rachel Vosika graduated this year from Pacific High School in San Bernardino, she worked on the biggest research paper she’d ever been assigned – a three-page biography of Virginia Woolf. She needed at least four sources, all of which could be from the Internet.

The effects of this trend show up in college classes. Fewer than half of students turn in papers relatively free of language errors, according to a 2002 survey of professors at California’s public colleges and universities.

On his blog, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub argues state standards aren’t crowding out research papers. In fact, the standards call for teachers to teach these skills.

The reason they’re not doing it is because neither the schools nor parents nor the community demands it, and the skills required to produce such a paper have slowly drifted out of the curriculum.

The California standards for 11th grade history include 11 separate benchmarks, each with its own set of sub-topics. If each of those 11 standards is given equal time during a school year, each one could take 14 days of class time, and the teacher would still have several weeks to spare for assemblies, testing, and time wasted at the start and the end of the year.

Weintraub lists the standard for history students studying World War II. There are plenty of good topics for a research paper.

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  1. I would agree that college students write very poorly, and I teach mostly seniors (management). I’m a stickler for writing and proofreading. I am more than happy to pre-view their papers and comment on both style and content (in person feedback only), although you can’t be a procrastinator and still use this option. (If you don’t limit feedback to in-person meetings, and you don’t set early deadlines for getting such feedback, students try and email you with a draft the night before, and then blame you when you can’t help them and they don’t get an A!).

    However, I will argue that the length of a paper is not a good sign of the difficulty of the assignment. In my PhD program, we had to write 2 page papers (double spaced) synthesizing a set of readings. That was difficult.

    I make my students write 2 page papers related to case studies. This forces them to make a recommendation and support it. As I tell them, executives don’t have time to read the long version. They need to learn to write and argue persuasively in an efficient form. Bad writing distracts from good arguments. Good writing can’t overcome bad arguments, but it tends to put the reader in a more receptive frame of mind.

  2. PJ/Maryland says:

    FWIW, writing English and history/social studies papers need not be mutually exclusive. My brother teaches HS English, and has his sophomores (I think) draw the names of famous assassins from a hat, and write a research paper on that person.

    I don’t know how closely that ties to sophomore social studies, but it’s probably more useful than writing a book report on Judy Blume.

  3. I’m a writer. Trust me, it is different to write 2 pages than it is to write 10 or 50 or 200. You need to be able to organize a larger amount of information and make it all flow. Not to mention, you learn more when you need to come up with 10 pages of information about a subject. I can’t see how you could learn the same depth of information in 2 pages.

    I remember writing a 17 page paper in the 6th grade. I didn’t think it was all that ridiculous at the time. 😛

    But then, I was shocked when I moved to another state and found out that the other 10th graders had never written a research paper before. Ever. It was depressing.