Libraries and Learning

The Term Paper Perplex

December 13, 2017

Ah, the perennial problem: why do we assign term papers? (Or research papers, if that’s what you call them.) The battle that has been fought and forgotten and fought again since at least 1982, and probably longer. That problem we’re wondering about between bouts of grading papers that turned out worse than expected.

I like the suggestions Deborah J. Cohan makes in her recent essay here – give students occasions to write about things they care about, make connections, and reflect on something they’ve learned rather than assign a long paper using sources they have little time or capacity to read and citing them using arcane rules that are rarely used outside academic settings. Too much of students’ attention goes into finding stuff to quote and organizing references, too little into communicating their ideas clearly. And hey, wouldn’t life be better if we didn’t have to spend hours and hours this time of year correcting errors when it’s too late just to assign a grade?

There are several different issues here. One is how to most effectively help student learn to write. Not to write just for college assignments, but to write for different reasons in different settings. The folks in writing studies have been thinking about this for a long time. They know a lot about this. There are scholars who do serious research on this very subject on most of our campuses. We should ask them what works. In my experience, they have great ideas.

Another issue that is going to be on the minds of my library colleagues is how will students learn to find and evaluate information themselves if they aren’t given assignments that ask them to develop their own questions and make choices among sources on their own. This, like writing, is a skill and disposition that matters beyond college. I’m| pretty sure there are librarians on your campus who could give you a lot of advice about how to give students opportunities to practice asking questions, finding things out, and learning to make sound judgements about sources. I guarantee that advice is very unlikely to be “assign more research papers.”

A third issue raised by Cohan’s essay is how to effectively give students feedback that can help them learn. Handing back a marked-up term paper pointing out errors when it’s too late to do anything about them doesn’t work very well and it’s a lot of work for little learning. Those writing studies scholars on your campus that I mentioned? They have good ideas about feedback on writing that works. Ask them.

I’m not sure why certain practices that frustrate teachers and students are so deeply ingrained in our everyday practice. We have decades of research about these practices. We have writing instructors and librarians who know a thing or two about how to create occasions for learning that are not term papers, but because they don’t have much status at their institutions, and everyone is too busy to ask, anyway, the college writing course and the library instruction program have to prepare students to do things that we know don’t work for teachers who hate grading papers but keep assigning them anyway.

Having said that, a lot of what I remember from my college classes came from the digging around that I did to write my papers. I actually enjoyed writing papers. But I was a little weird.

Learning how to write well is important. Learning how to find stuff out is important. Believing it’s worth our time to find stuff out and not simply believe the information we encounter is incredibly important. Being able to tell students how they’re doing with their reading and writing and thinking and how they could do better is important, too. Why do we have to keep discovering anew that term papers are not the best way to do these things for many if not most of our students?

The good news is that there are almost certainly people on your campus – the writing folks, the librarians, the best teachers in your own departments – who have given this a lot of thought and can propose good alternatives to that assignment you may be grading right now. Better yet, open up the discussion in your departments and programs so you can think about how students learn to do these things in a sequence of experiences that makes sense. Students can learn a lot by doing extensive research on a topic – but that’s not what they’re doing when a generic term paper is simply assigned out of habit.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.