Teaching the Research Paper- Tips and Tricks I teach 11th and 12th grade English, and though this is my second year, I still find teaching the research paper to be difficult. My students don't seem...

Teaching the Research Paper- Tips and Tricks

I teach 11th and 12th grade English, and though this is my second year, I still find teaching the research paper to be difficult. My students don't seem to value the research and writing process, but would rather do everything instantly. Do any teachers out there have any tips or tricks to help make the process less painful for today's students? My school does not have a lot of access to technology in the classroom, and our library is limited. It's a challenge!

Expert Answers
Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Re: Posts #9 and #10--absolutely. Even the idea of a research paper sends many students into a tail spin, but letting them know up front that their big job will be broken down into a series of little jobs relieves a lot of anxiety. These are the handouts I use:

1. A research paper packet that explains each step in the process with examples of work for them to model, such as sample thesis statements, note cards, bib cards, introductory paragraphs, etc. The packet also contains a sample research paper. Throughout the unit, we go back to the packet to review the examples for each step of the process as they begin it.

2. A chronological list of each step in the research paper with due dates. The steps are formatted with a check-off blank so that they can check off their work as it is completed. This keeps them on track and seems to encourage them as they see the progress they are making. It keeps them from feeling so overwhelmed.

I also prepare for myself a master chart for each class doing the paper so that I can check off the steps as each student completes them. This chart is invaluable for me. I can tell at a glance exactly where each is student is in the process and intervene before anyone gets impossibly behind.

As for creating student interest, at the beginning of the unit before handing out the research paper packet, I ask students to write down what they are curious about, what they would really like to find out. Sometimes the initial response is "I don't know" or "nothing, really," but with some discussion, ideas start to flow and it becomes a fun activity: Why do skunks smell bad? Did Atlantis ever really exist? Do dogs think? These kinds of questions usually open up some interesting topics, and then I give them a list with dozens of possible topics to further spur their curiosity.

The first step in the packet is to formulate a question they want to answer through research, making sure it is not too narrow or too wide. When they know the answer to the question, I explain, their answer will be their thesis statement to explain and support through research. It's a good way to begin, I think. When students are researching to find out something they really want to learn, their curiosity keeps them engaged. Sometimes they discover something really surprising, change their question, and take off in another direction, quite enthusiastically.

Letting them explore their own areas of interest pays other dividends, too. Sometimes students will follow up on something interesting they have learned in other classes, especially science and history, which helps them in those classes. I've had many students who researched specific careers, and as a result, they began to see a direct relationship between school and their own futures. Also, some of my students have explored personal problems or family issues through research, trying to get a firmer grip on their own lives. If the research is relevant to them, it doesn't seem like drudgery, and it can be a really valuable personal learning experience.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

So many good ideas for you here so far!! I am blessed to be able to take my students to the library for a day, preparing them ahead of time and assisting them while we're there. I, too, break the task into smaller, more do-able steps. I taketwo sets of grades for this project. The first is a checkpoint grade for all the incremental deadlines along the way (i.e., 10 bib cards, 20 note cards, preliminary outline). I give them a calendar at the beginning on which we put key school and class activities; from there we decide together (though I have the final say, of course) on how much is due when. Being flexible about days is huge for them, and as long as the work is completed on schedule I don't care if it's more now or more later. Seems to help morale to let them make some of those decisions with me.

The biggest motivator I have found is not a workable idea for everyone, but it has stood me in good stead for many, many years. Each year, for one class, I write a research paper with them. Several benefits accrue from my writing: I remember what kind of time it takes to do effective source-finding, I understand how long it takes to write note cards, I feel the crunch of time and other obligations, and--by far the most important to me--I do not have to endure any whining. If they start complaining about how long it takes or how much work it is or whatever, I just tell say, "I know." That takes the grumbling winds out of their sails pretty quickly and actually gives us another point of academic connection.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Limited technology, hum?  Do you have a computer lab?  I take my students there after we've spent a week in the library.  I also love to have them do the webquest called Internet Detective to understand the value of websites which are credible sources.  The link is here:  http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/detective/

One thing that we do here is allow students to choose their topic--either a hobby or career they are interested in learning more about and perhaps pursuing.  If they are truly interested, they will value the process more, and won't complain so much about the researching and writing.

We do have several online databases and an extensive non-fiction library collection.  Unfortunately, we no longer have periodicals in our library.  They must be researched online or at the local library or university library. 

Knowing that they will be expected to know how to adequately research and write once they arrive at college also helps to inspire them to pick up the skills we are teaching during the research paper part of the senior project which also includes creating a physical product, a portfolio, and to present what they have learned at the end of the project.  They must also secure a mentor and log a minimum of six hours community service.  It is a large undertaking, but the students always seem not only grateful to have completed it, but also grateful for what they've learned during the process.

Good Luck!


wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I had a similar situation with limited technology and limited library acess. What made things easier for my students was to give them a research paper packet. It took them step by step through the paper writing process. For instance, the first section was about brainstorming the topic. Then we talked about how to find the information they were looking for. The second section walked them through the process of making notecards. I taught them a system for using notecards to track various aspects of their These I collected as a grade which helped inspire them to work harder. The final section was all about putting the whole paper together. As we approached each step, there were activities that we did together so they weren't overwhelmed. For instance, I wanted them to use MLA format and we used our textbook as a sample text to practice with. Then, as we were researching, I would bring a cart down from the library full of reference books. The students learned how to find information and how to site that type of resource. In the end, we spent few days in the library and fewer in the computer lab; however, the students had plenty of access to materials during class time so I could assit them. They had their packet to follow as a guideline so they knew what I expected from them. I have had several students return from college for a visit and tell me that they still use their packets. I've even had a few come and ask for another copy.
sboeman eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've found that students just get overwhelmed when they even hear the term "research paper" - it seems to have such a negative connotation to it.  I also allow students to choose their own topics, but have some more common topics handy if students can't seem to choose their own.  No two students in my class can have the same topic.

A first step I like to do is to have students write down their topic at the top of a piece of paper.  They then pass their paper around the room so other students can write general questions that they'd like to know about the topic.  For example, if a student were to research the prevalence of steroids in professional sports, other students might jot down questions like "Who are some famous athletes who've been accused of taking them?" or "Does one sport have more users than others?" 

When students get their papers back, they usually have a list of about 15-20 questions that they can try to answer in their paper.  They can then use these questions to sketch an outline and have some guidance for how to go about researching.  It also shows them how to create an essay to appeal to the proverbial "lay" audience/reader.

Setting short-term goals is very effective - outline due on this date, first two paragraphs due by this date, etc. 


kapokkid eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to admit, having limited technology sounds like a good thing to me.  But in order to get students into the idea of research, the only thing I've found to be helpful is to push them to find something they want to research.  This can be difficult depending on how restrictive your curriculum is but without that interest-driven work, I've seen the same thing.  Students only want to do what you require and they don't appear to have any desire to dig deeper.

The few times where I've had students really get going on something, they don't care whether they have a computer or a book as they search out more information about this topic or question that is driving them.

I can't think of many tips and tricks other than that, but I wish you the best of luck.  As soon as I figure it out, I'll pass it along!

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To what extent do you think your students don't like research papers because they are overwhelmed by the idea of trying to find information and decide which information to use?  I know my students have often had that problem (of course, I teach in a low-income, low-educational achievement community and so my students may not be like yours).

To combat that, I started mine off by giving them the information I wanted them to use.  They would all have the same information and then their task would be to boil it down into a paper.  I know that doesn't teach them to find their own stuff.  And I know it doesn't give them the chance to research something that actually interests them.  But it seemed to work for me as a step towards getting the whole process to seem less huge and intimidating.

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I learned this trick from another teacher. When constructing the Works Cited page, for a standard entry of book, with author, etc., the order can sometimes mess kids up.

The acronym that was shared with me is ATCPD: All Tall Cats Puke Donuts. A stands or the author; T stands for title; C stands for city of publication; P stands for publisher; and, D stands for date of copyright. With the correct order in place, all students need to remember is the punctuation between each section.

The other thing I always try to reinforce with my students is that they copy URL addresses for Internet sources, and book titles with authors for book sources; going back to find them after the fact is a long and frustrating task...sometimes even impossible.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a preliminary exercise to the research paper, many teachers at my school have assigned an FAQ paper about an important work or author.  Students compose 10 questions that they would like to know about the author/work and must use 5 mandatory questions.  The paper is in a Q and A format, with each answer carefully documented following MLA form. A work cited page is required at the end.  We provide an sample paper for students to follow.  Of course, this type of assignment does not involve analysis of any kind, but it does require the student to do his or own research on a particular topic and to find relevant information.  Students seem to enjoy finding interesting facts about a writer's life or work. 

howesk eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That webquest looks like a good activity!

To give a better image of my situation- we have a computer lab with only 13 computers. Average class size= 21. No access to online databases that require subscription. We do have a laptop cart which can be brought into the classroom, it has 15 laptops.

The curriculum for 11th and 12th grade requires a research paper junior year about American History/Literature and senior year British History/Literature. I do allow them to choose their own topics within those constraints. They typically have a hard time choosing a British topic.

Thanks for your imput!

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One thing I do which my students seem to find really helpful is to structure and break down the research topic task into its separate bits. One of the things that my students find so overwhelming is that it is such a big, time intensive piece of work. I actually break it down for them into the separate tasks that need to be completed in order to complete the overall task. I then assign these separate tasks as assignments to a set time schedule. Thus students have to submit examples of research they have done, essay plans etc. This really helps them to break it down and get the job done.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus’s bravest and most significant action is raising his children as he believes is right, even though his beliefs differ so greatly from society’s.  For a man to raise two children on his own in the 1930s would be bravery to begin with, but raising them to believe that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect was unpopular.  Atticus teaches his children to respect the Cunninghams and the Robinsons.  He also respects them himself.  These are revolutionary, controversial, and very brave actions.  He even stands up to his sister when Alexandra disagrees with him.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Accessteacher has a great idea. For some students the task of getting from start to finish is so overwhelming that they don't even start. My suggestion would be to provide them with a task scheduler handout, and teach them how to use it. Start with the end date, and lead them in a discussion of what elements they would need to complete to reach that goal. After the parts are broken down, set a deadline for the first goal. Once that has been completed, set a deadline for the next part, and etc.

jadavis1 | Student

That webquest looks like a good activity!

To give a better image of my situation- we have a computer lab with only 13 computers. Average class size= 21. No access to online databases that require subscription. We do have a laptop cart which can be brought into the classroom, it has 15 laptops.

The curriculum for 11th and 12th grade requires a research paper junior year about American History/Literature and senior year British History/Literature. I do allow them to choose their own topics within those constraints. They typically have a hard time choosing a British topic.

Thanks for your imput!

I would suggest (1) generating questions while students read the required texts and (2) breaking down the research & writing process, as others have suggested. I'm assuming the research projet occurs towards the end of the semester, giving you ample opportunity to periodically prime students' thinking with critical-thinking exercises while they read a text(s).

(1) For example: if you have Shakespeare and Milton on your British curriculum, you might ask students to think about the political conflicts depicted in each author while situating each around the English Civil War. This could help generate a bevy of topics on 17th Century British history and literature.

(2) Then, as posts #9, #10, and #11 have already suggested, break down the research and writing process into discrete steps. Connect topics to the ideas already discussed, have students collect and organize information in stages, then outline, draft, revise, and edit.

I think it's important for us to remember that, although research papers are a final assessment at the college level, the assignment must be treated as a unit in high school. Otherwise, students don't understand the relevant steps in conducting and presenting research; this misunderstanding contributes to the confusion and anxiety that make kids hate writing papers.

Great discussion question!

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question