Writing for knowledge

Most high school teachers  don’t assign “serious research papers” to their students, writes Will Fitzhugh, now a Concord Review blogger, on The Answer Sheet.

. . . teachers do not have the time (or perhaps the knowledge) to guide students through them and to assess them when they are handed in.

. . . as long as educators do not see that writing serious term papers will lead to more knowledge, which leads students to read better and understand more, such papers will continue to receive the small notice they now do.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education poll a few years ago, 89% of college professors said their students were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing, Fitzhugh notes.

Also on The Answer Sheet, 17-year-old Christiane Henrich, a Marblehead High senior, writes about writing her first research paper.

Before crafting my research paper on U.S. Civil War Medicine, I had never composed a piece of non-fiction literature beyond six or seven pages. Twenty pages seemed to be an unconquerable length.

Her paper was published in The Concord Review, a quarterly academic journal for high school history research.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I know I make some pretty hard hitting comments in particular at teachers that appear to not be educating children the way I know I want mine educated, appear not to care or state in so many words they are truly lazy. I am really curious about why teachers today do not assign true research papers to their students. I ask because in my line of work one of the most important things we are required to do is write well. We have to research, document, mitigate, support, etc. our point of view in order to get our jobs done. We write for an audience that does not know our client. Our writings have to be clear and concise and the points being made have to be well supported. The outsiders that review our work judge our knowledge and decisions on how well we document the reason we want to do what we recommend. Without excellent written and verbal communication skills this becomes an impossibility.

    I have corrected countless numbers of these papers over the years. It is not easy as each associate has developed their own writing style. The young people I work with for the most part did not go to the typical default government school. They went to private or magnet type government schools where academics were the focus. In these schools writing is a critical part of the curriculum. Yet what about the person coming out of the default government school that desires the same opportunity but did not get the solid writing foundation due to teachers inability to teach writing or unwillingness to teach writing?

    I know I am not suppose to compare the way things were done when I was in school…but government education has deteriorated drastically and is still on a downhill slant. Yet…as early as 4th grade I was doing research papers complete with footnotes, quotes, sources, etc. We didn’t have “turnitin” that checks for plagiarism and the papers were not twenty pages long but they were real research papers. They got harder and longer as the years went on.

    So…why is this style of writing not taught starting in the early grades with more rigor added throughout the child’s venture through school? It is definitely done in private schools…why would government educators not do the same for their students?

    Another question is how much writing did those of you who are teachers do both in your school years and in your ed training? What type of background in writing and how to review it do you have? Are you comfortable teaching writing? If the answer to any of these questions is no or little to none, what has to be done to get teachers the skills they need to educate the students in how to write effective papers?

    With the push to send kids to college…if they cannot write well…they are in trouble from day one…


  2. I went to superb schools in the 1960s and 1970s, in a district routinely ranked among the nation’s best. We wrote, but we did not do research papers.

  3. dangermom says:

    I have to say, I’m surprised by this. I thought that learning to write research papers was one of the basic requirements of high school. I went to a pretty bad high school (was quite unprepared for the college I went to), but we did learn to write papers up to 10 pages. I won’t say we learned it *well* but we did it.

    I’ll have to ask my local high-schoolers–the school here is much better than mine was, so I will hope to hear about research papers. I homeschool myself, and research papers are certainly on the agenda–my 4th grader is starting by learning to outline and figure out the structure of non-fiction writing. She is now moving into outlining a section of text and then turning the outline into a piece of her own.

  4. I teach middle school English and social studies and I require 2-3 research papers per year that have to include MLA citations. I will tell you that it is very hard to carve out the time to teach research writing and even harder to teach citation style. So many students simply ignore it until they barely pass a paper they “worked hard on” because they refuse to cite their research.

    I can tell you that if I didn’t assign a single research paper all year, I wouldn’t get in any trouble at all. Admin is perfectly happy with pretty make-work that looks nice on bulletin boards–posters, brochures, dioramas, the like. And as far as English goes? Please. As we noted in an earlier thread here this week, expressive writing is all the rage and if kids never write a single serious nonfiction piece, that would be fine. This is in EIGHTH GRADE. When I was in school (and I’m under 35, so it’s not like this was a million years ago), I had written several large-scale research projects by the time I had completed middle school; my first one was in fifth grade.

    It’s the same as I told you before, Tim; teachers don’t do it not because it’s hard, but because it’s seen as unimportant by their bosses. Why do all that hard work when your boss will tell you they should be writing about how the Spanish-American War made them feel?

  5. Huh. We do a significant research paper every year — about 10 pages (20 is overkill for high school and not great pedagogy for a variety of reasons… if they can do 10 at age 16, they can do 20 at 19 when they’re more mature).

    That said, our kids often come back and tell us they’re the best prepared writers in their freshman comp classes — even our very so-so kids.

    In K-12, I don’t recall doing that much writing and struggling a bit the first year in college. After that, being an English major took care of it. In Ed School, we took a class in writing pedagogy that seemed adequate to me. I make a point of having my student teachers assign two or three essays and grade the stack so they have a sense of how to teach writing — even if it sacrifices a book (student teachers just go slower).

    In any case, I think it is more a time thing. Research papers require hours and hours of grading. I think I clock about 40 hours of grading through drafts and the final version on average — and that’s on top of doing everything else. We could do systemic things to support the teaching of writing, such as separating out a composition course from the literature (they’re usually combined) and giving the teacher a plan period for every period of composition so that she can assign a paper a week and sleep and eat, too. That costs money, though. And good writing is not a race-to-the-top or NCLB objective. Producing good writers won’t get you in good AYP standing, and test scores are everything, aren’t they?

  6. The #1 thing that inhibits me from assigning research papers is that many kids don’t understand the source material they read. It’s Greek to them. This is very true in seventh grade, which I currently teach, but also in high school, which I used to teach. Which leads me back to the Core Knowledge approach: feed the kids’ minds a rich diet of background knowledge for k-8 to boost their reading comprehension level, and, then, once they have the wherewithal to comprehend Encyclopedia Brittanica and other source material, assign research.

  7. I teach my sophomores how to write a persuasive research paper. I check their progress at each step of the way, from evaluating sources to final draft. I teach them how to use a database instead of Google, how to write their thesis statements, how to outline, how to use parenthetical citations, how to create a works cited paper. I teach them the newest MLA guidelines.

    This is the hardest and most time-consuming work we do all year, but I think it is the most valuable. In the past, I have had many plagiarized papers and well, just junk handed in. That is why I changed how we do it; I examine each step of the process and don’t let them proceed until they get my approval. I took the time pressure off by going slowly and only concentrating on the paper one day of the week for a grading period. Everyone had time to get each step finished.

    I told them at the beginning that if they “front-loaded” the work and took good notes the actual final draft would be easier than they could imagine at the start of the work. I am grading their papers now and they are the best I’ve ever gotten from my students. Every one of them thanked me for taking them through this slowly and carefully and for not letting them cheat or do badly.

    My biggest complaint is this: why does it fall to the English teachers to do this? Every teacher should be able to do this work and to teach it well. Why do other teachers allow students to copy and paste and give them good grades for junk work? They don’t have time? I don’t want to add up all the hours outside of school that I have spent at each stage of the paper! If a student graduates without the ability to form a thesis and find information to prove or amend that thesis, that student is not ready for college work. If that student cannot use MLA or another format style, that student is not ready for college. If a student has not learned the self-discipline to plan for and take the time to do an assignment like this correctly, that student is not ready for college!

  8. Miss Eyre, Would you share what you expect of your 8th graders with regards to the length of their research reports? How many paragraphs/words??

  9. I try not to be too stringent with length requirements in terms of the actual words they write; rather, I require that they consult a minimum of 4 sources to write their papers. Two of the 4 sources have to be actual printed books and Wikipedia is not allowed. Requiring them to consult that many sources typically results in a 3-4 page paper. That’s not as substantial as I’d like, but if I can use that to teach them the basic thrust of what a research paper should be, how to properly cite sources, how to consider the reliability of a source, and how to support a position, that’s pretty good, I think.

  10. My daughter’s high school in LA (private Catholic, all girls) assigned these, but the standards varied. Her history teachers were pretty rigorous, but she had a Lit. teacher who allowed Wikipedia as a source. Geeze.

  11. Thanks for the info, Miss Eyre. We homeschooling and my 7th grader is about to begin a unit on research reports. My only struggle is determining how detailed or extensive the report should be. Our first semester was spent on the 5 paragraph persuasive essay. Using MLA, 3-4 pages with 4 sources sounds realistic for us, too.

  12. I usually don’t assign research papers because they’re a pain in the butt and I end up giving a lot of F’s.

    Last year I had a parent call me up and scream at me because I gave her daughter an F.

    “She worked the whole weekend on it!”

    She worked the whole weekend because though she knew how to copy, she did not know how to copy and paste.

    When I go back to work, maybe I’ll give it another shot. I hate them, but that’s not a good reason.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    My biggest complaint is this: why does it fall to the English teachers to do this [to teach students how to do a research paper]?

    For the same reason it doesn’t fall to the English teachers to teach Newton’s Laws of Motion or the causes of the Spanish-American War or how to solve a quadratic equation.

    Learning to write is hard. Learning to research and turn it into good writing is even harder.

    Teaching someone to do that, providing the structure and the periodic feedback, is incredibly time-consuming. Perhaps it should be a separate course.

  14. The young woman in the article is inspiring, but she is not representative in any way of students in my school. I started reading the article, hoping I would feel inspired to try teaching a research paper again. Unfortunately, she lost me at the point of going to a university library. Our admin won’t back us on an assignment that requires something like that. We can’t even require them to bring pencil and paper.

    Our school library is so pathetic that any research done there, and it has to be during class time, is going to have to be from internet sources. Could you imagine a child printing “thousands of pages” on the library printer?

    What happens when you give this assignment and only 20% of your kids turn anything in, of even the lowest quality? Do you flunk the other 25 kids? And if an assignment that spans months and countless hours of outside time won’t result in an “F” if the kid doesn’t do it, would even the other 20% turn it in?

    Even if you did flunk the 80% who didn’t turn it in, you’d better make sure you have a signed statement from each kid, and their parents, stating that they understand they will fail if they don’t turn it in. Even then, your admins at best will have a sit down asking you what we can do to help little Billy pass. Once Billy knows he’s going to fail, what possible incentive does he have to do any other work for the class? What incentive does he have not to be a total ass each day and melt down the rest of the class?

    I started reading that article thinking maybe I would do another research paper. Now I think I’ve talked myself out of it again.

  15. Put me in the “so what” column for research papers. I, too, went to good schools in the 70s and never did a research paper. It’s important that kids know how to write, and I can see teaching seniors how to write research papers, but it’s hardly a big deal.

    Again, it comes down to the kids we’re sending to college. If you don’t have much knowledge and you can’t write well, then a research paper is a big deal.

  16. As a non-educator, but a well-educated mom and attorney, I can unequivocally state that research papers were invaluable to me. I started having to write them in about 5th grade (rural public school in the 80s), and had to write at least one per year in multiple classes. By the time I was in high school, a 10 page paper was a big deal but not insurmountable, and the 25-30 pages I routinely had to research and write (again, in a variety of classes) in my public college were also not intimidating. The process is what was so helpful to me. The process of figuring out where to start, find the information and choosing which to include, organizing that information and my thoughts, and finally, putting it all to paper, has been so useful in my career. I can’t overstate this. And it worries me for my own young children’s education that I read so many teachers here suggesting that it’s not worth the time and effort to assign and teach research papers. I am in no way suggesting that you’re wrong in that assessment. Don’t get me wrong; I sympathize with your plight and can understand how you come to that conclusion. But where does that leave my children, who absolutely won’t be in the group who doesn’t turn something in or can’t understand primary sources? Is this yet another area in which I will have to fill in the gaps as I expect to have to in so many others?

  17. My daughter, an excellent writer, started writing in preschool and by high school could turn out a 10 page research paper in a week. Made me crazy that she always waited until the last minute to actually write the thing. She always got As, though.

    Fast forward to college: piece of cake, she said, because of all the writing she had done in high school.

    Today she is a 30 something minister who can write a paper or sermon in only minutes and get rave reviews. She still owes it to her high school training.

  18. Rho: Love the anaphora :). You’re right, of course — the secret is in the process. I generally spend about 5 weeks with my sophomores.

    If other subject areas are going to assign research papers, they need to do it correctly. Heck, what else are PD days for? We can teach ’em how. I’d certainly rather see them do one well done paper than a half dozen things that encourage crappy writing (and kids invariably turn in crap to these other departments “because it isn’t English”). I wouldn’t go so far as all other subject areas, but social studies should absolutely be teaching research and source evaluation. And business should not stand for sloppy errors.

  19. I went to a college prep high school in the mid 80s, over twenty years ago, and was assigned exactly one term paper, in sophomore english class, and I was allowed to pick *Alfred Hitchcock* as the subject matter (no, I don’t know why it wasn’t on an author.)

    It’s been decades since anyone thought research mattered. Primary sources? No one cares anymore either.

    Should we care? Yes, but we’ve gone too far for people to know why. They haven’t seen the value of a term paper or reading primary sources or of learning rhetoric for so long that they don’t know what’s to be gained from it. They don’t know that actually digesting arguments made by thinkers has merit.

  20. Bill Leonard says:

    I started Senior — or 4th-year- highschool English in 1960.

    There were term papers in that course, and in the College Studies Skills course. We learned to write a LOT better — and to sublimate ourselves to the heavy-duty footnoting styles. (Younger posters will perhas not appreciate how much trouble it was to write a term paper when one had to actually figure out how much space to leave at the bottom of the page for footnotes — and to type it yourself. Everyone went through at least three drafts! And virtually everyone typed his or her own paper on a manual typewriter…)

    Given all that, today’s computer advantages overwhelm. I am simply dismayed that kids no longer put in that sort of work. For one thing, in those days the student really learned to read carefully, and to take notes.

    We didn’t think about it as writing for knowledge — but I think that’s what it a amounted to…



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