INTRODUCTION: I have taught college composition for almost 20 years.  The second half of the composition sequence includes a major research project I call simply the Term Paper.  Students receive the assignment in the opening weeks of the term and submit their finished papers immediately before final exams.  In my earliest years of assigning the Term Paper, I collected final papers that were routinely poorly focused, poorly developed, and poorly organized.  The more serious problem represented in these products was that student writers were not learning and adopting effective habits for research and writing.  My regular weekly reminders seemed to have little effect.  What I eventually decided on was a regular series of assessments that would motivate the students more directly than reminders and classroom activities.  I called it the Research Log: a series of brief weekly research/writing assignments related to the Term Paper.  This strategy can be adapted to nearly any class that includes a major research project, provided that the time for working on the project extends over a period of at least a few weeks. 

PURPOSE:

  • Show writers how to work steadily on an extended project. 
  • Encourage broad (many types of sources) and deep (sources with intense focus) research strategies.
  • Reinforce critical thinking and writing. 

SUPPLIES/SET UP:

This is a semester-long series of short assessments.  The following documents are appended at the end of this article, but instructors may wish to adapt any of these to suit a specific learning goal or assessment:

  • The Term Paper assignment handout
  • Description of the Research Log
  • Ten assignments for individual Research Log entries
  • Rubric for assessing individual Research Log entries
  • Research Log Survey (post-Term Paper deadline)

DIRECTIONS:

This is an activity extending over several weeks, up to an entire semester.  These directions include general time markers, relative to the entire period from assigning the project up to the final deadline.  Individual instructors will, of course, adjust and adapt as necessary to meet their students’ specific learning needs.

1.  In the first week, assign the Term Paper and the Research Log (RL), and emphasize the importance of the RL to the successful completion of the Term Paper.  Remind them that the first RL entry will be due at the end of the third week of the semester.  All ten RL assignments are appended.  Announce: “The Research Log is your way of working steadily on the Term Paper.  It is not an assignment in addition to the Term Paper; it is what you should be doing to complete the Term Paper.”  This assignment and questions about it will probably take 30 minutes during the first week of classes. 

2.  Each week, present the next RL assignment.  Answer any questions.  Invite students to share experiences and successes with their ongoing research.   Always provide a full week between assigning each RL entry and its deadline.  You will probably spend about 10-15 minutes per week just on discussing the Research Log and Term Paper progress.

3.  As you collect each set of RL entries, read and respond to them carefully.  Use the rubric (appended) to evaluate each entry, but remember that this is also a time to formatively assess each entry.  The feedback on earlier entries should shape what each student does on upcoming entries.  For example, a student who summarizes two sources when the Research Log assignment is to synthesize those sources can be directed to review what it means to synthesize.  Ideally, students should receive your feedback on each entry before the next one is due.

4.  At midterm, roughly, the sixth RL entry will be due.  It is a research proposal, a formal plan for the Term Paper.  Schedule an individual conference with each student to discuss their progress on the Term Paper, using the research proposal as the basis for discussion.  Ask each student questions based upon his or her proposal, express any concerns you have based upon that proposal, and make pertinent suggestions that seem appropriate based upon your conference.  Depending on the number of students and the relative proportion of the assignment as a component of the course, you may find it useful to cancel scheduled class meetings for the week and meet only one on one.  Good questions to ask: “How is your research going?  What obstacles have you encountered?  How have you met those challenges?  What areas are giving you the most problems?  What can I do to help you at this point?”

5.  Continue to assign, read, and assess individual RL entries during the coming weeks.  Schedule another round of conferences to coincide with the deadline for the tenth and final RL entry.  That entry focuses on a final “matrix” of sources and aspects of the Term Paper topic: which of those sources will address which aspects, and how that matrix can translate into a general structure for The Term Paper.  Help guide each student’s choices based on the plan represented in the final RL entry. Good questions to ask:  “How do you plan to develop each of these aspects?  Where will you synthesize, summarize, and analyze your data?  What questions do you have about documenting your sources?  What can I do to help you at this point?”

6.  Collect final Term Papers two weeks after the deadline for the 10th RL entry. 

EXPERIENCES

I noticed marked improvements in Term Papers after I began using the Research Log as a strategy.  Even before using the full-blown Research Log, I required research proposals, and those improved when they became a later entry in the RL.  The result is Term Papers that are better focused, better developed, and better organized.  Students tend to use more sources and certainly more academic and scholarly sources.  When we have our conferences over the Term Papers, students seem more engaged with their topics as well as the research process overall.  I hear fewer comments about what they “have to” do and more about “how to” do the things they have planned.  And while this is not the most crucial aspect of this or any assignment, Term Papers written by students taking part in the Research Log process write longer papers—which mainly means that more students’ papers come in AT LEAST at the minimum length.  Finally, I have almost no problem at all anymore with plagiarism in Term Papers.  Yes, students still struggle with attribution and documentation and integrating source material.  But we catch most of those problems along the way in individual RL entries, and by the time The Term Paper is done they’ve fixed them.  And intentionally plagiarized Term Papers are virtually a thing of the past.  While it’s theoretically possible to find a paper online in Week 3 and “reverse engineer” all the RL entries from that paper, it hardly seems feasible.  A student would do nearly as much work to do that as to simply start from scratch as the assignment intends; such a student would still learn a great deal from that process even if it got past me. 

OUTCOMES

*Show writers how to work steadily on an extended project.

They can’t avoid it.  One could argue that they are working according to someone else’s schedule, not their own, but they’re still seeing such incremental work in action.  More than one student has expressed how much they have surprised themselves by keeping up with the work on The Term Paper, and they unreservedly credit the Research Log.  Examples:

–I think the research logs helped me greatly! It helped me not to procrastinate and made my paper easier to write due to the fact of the span of time I was researching my topic.

–It helped to keep me going on the paper throughout the semester. I can see where it would be easy to procrastinate and end up with a subpar paper.

–The research log really did help me stay on top of my paper.  I know that I write over one thousand words per hour so when writing my individual research logs I planned for that kind of elaboration (rather than doing the minimum).  When it was time for doing the term paper there really was no rush or too much work involved.

 *Encourage broad and deep research strategies.

The various RL assignments specifically call upon students to use multiple sources, so MORE research is constantly required.  And because some of the entries specifically require academic/scholarly sources, students are compelled to become familiar with them and the resources (EBSCO-type databases) in which they can find those sources.  As I tell my students, when you do research in academic and scholarly journals, you are using deep research strategies.  

*Reinforce critical thinking and writing

Because the RL assignments require not just a greater quantity of research but also quality use of material, they are constantly immersed in critical assessment of information.  The various critical thinking and writing skills that the RL entries call upon are parallel with other, shorter papers they’re writing throughout the term: when they’re working on analysis in the class, the RL assignment is to analyze arguments in their sources.  This parallel structure in the class has them working simultaneously on the same skill but with different topics.  Examples of student feedback:

–I think that the Research Logs were helpful because they made me start working on the research for my term paper. I used the first RL entry with the questions we wanted to answer all semester. It gave me a sense of direction and helped with my outline.

–I visited the subject so many times that it made me have a better understanding of what I was talking about therefore giving me a better term paper.

LESSONS LEARNED

Good advice will never carry the same weight that a concrete requirement carries.  In the abstract, students understand nearly as well as anyone the necessity to work in increments on projects of significant scope.  But whether you call it procrastination or laziness or the addled decision making of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the fact is that good intentions will not achieve the results that a graded activity achieves. 

My students have learned that this kind of work matters.  In addition to the students already mentioned who expressed pleasant surprise at their success in staying current on their research, I have had at least two former students who have made a point of contacting me, separately, some months or years after graduating from Spoon River and transferring to a university.  They contacted me to report on something learned at their new school: they were in an upper-division class, they report, facing a major research project.  They looked around at their classmates, some of whom looked downright panicked.  But, in the midst of their own Aha! moment, they looked at the assignment, they said, and recognized that they knew just what to do—thanks to The Term Paper project in my 100-level composition class, with the Research Log chaser.  That’s the kind of thing that keeps you teaching, let me tell you.    

SOURCE

This strategy is my own, though the concept certainly seems to be reinforced by the 32-Day Commitment from the On Course I Workshop.   A Research Log is a longer strategy than 32 days, and it’s not daily, but the basic idea is similar: establish a habit of working steadily on something.  Additionally, On Course educators will recognize how the Graduation Game (3-foot tosses) might reinforce the process of doing the RL.

10. SUPPORT MATERIALS:

APPENDIX I:  The Term Paper assignment handout.

ENG 102: The Term Paper

Assignment: Ask a question regarding a topic related somehow to your own professional/academic interests.  Write a paper that will answer that question by making judgments and drawing conclusions based on the available evidence. 

To complete the project, you must choose a focus, design a guiding question, conduct research, and write the paper using a style and strategies appropriate to your chosen rhetorical situation (purpose and audience).

To answer your central question, you will pose a variety of supporting questions, the answers to which will lead you closer to an answer to the main question.  You will arrive at that answer through a process that includes a careful examination of available evidence: summarizing information, analyzing arguments, synthesizing ideas, and generally taking a critical view of that evidence.  Your Term Paper will not merely inform or explain; it will make judgments and draw conclusions based on the evidence presented.  Be sure that the guiding question you choose to answer in the paper does not call for mere reporting or explaining.

Rhetorical situation

Unfortunately, many classroom-based written projects ask you to form a judgment first and only afterward seek out support for that judgment.  Such an approach turns the critical-thinking process on its head and is largely responsible for the sorry state of public discussion of serious issues in our society—and in our professions.  By contrast, in this Term Paper you’ll start not with a judgment but a question which you will investigate and attempt to answer through information you discover.  In other words, you are expected to critically address the question, finding any pertinent information (on any “side” of the question), weighing the data, and only afterward forming a critical judgment that you will share with your audience by summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing that data.  Your Term Paper is your best answer to your central question, based upon the available evidence—not upon politics, prejudice, or personal feelings.

With this in mind, imagine that you are writing for an audience composed of reasonably educated and informed people looking for authoritative, critically sound answers to their questions.  The discourse may take the form of a published article: in this case, you identify the publication in which you imagine your article might appear, be it print or electronic (e.g., Parents magazine, Journal of Nursing Education, James Joyce Quarterly); or it may take the form of an imagined spoken presentation: in this case, you identify the occasion, including the audience (e.g., testifying before a Senate subcommittee on teen violence, speaking to a convention of health-care volunteers, addressing a gathering of literature professors).

–Your target audience is those readers/listeners, expecting a carefully reasoned, thoroughly researched treatment of the topic.

–Your purpose is to provide readers with clear, complete answers to the guiding question. 

–Your task is to raise the level of debate on this issue by thinking critically, reasoning capably, and providing real information that will take the discussion beyond politics, prejudice, and personal feelings.

–Your role is that of informed and thoughtful researcher.

Guiding question:  Once you have discovered a topic, ask a question that will guide your research on that topic.  In other words, ask a question—one your readers might ask—that you will attempt to answer through your research (e.g., “Is the so-called epidemic of teen violence as bad as our media portray it?  If so, what are the causes?  What can be done to address the problem?”).

Sources:  You will use, whenever possible, academic sources.  These are usually academic journals, periodical publications that are written by and for members of an academic discipline (e.g., psychology, nursing, literary studies).  You may supplement these with sources of a more general nature, but you should rely mostly upon academic sources.  When encountering disagreement among the sources you find, carefully analyze the arguments in those sources in order to make a judgment.

Format and requirements

–Length: 2,500-4,000 words of text, plus documentation (required)

–Number of sources: minimum of 10 (NOTE: “minimum” does not mean “target number”; your research should be guided not by number of sources but by the completeness of your answer to your guiding question.

–Documentation and manuscript form: choose MLA or APA.  In either case, you will identify your Term Paper’s target audience in a separate line below the paper’s title (“Target audience: readers of Journal of Nursing Education”)

Ideas and suggestions

–Avoid badly focused or unproductive research questions, such as those calling for a simple statement of established fact.  On the other extreme are questions calling for a completely subjective judgment that is unaffected by fact.  Also to be avoided are “loaded” questions, those that contain a bias in themselves.  Below are some examples of good and poor guiding questions.

Nursing

  • Poor Question: What are the good things about nursing? (too subjective)
  • Good Question: Why is there currently a nursing shortage, and how can it be remedied?

Real estate

  • Poor Question : What does it take to get a real estate license? (calls for a simple statement of fact—reporting)
  • Good Question: How are real estate agents affected by downturns in the housing market, and how can those effects be minimized?

Journalism/media studies

  • Poor Question :  Why are news media so liberal?  (loaded question—assumes that such a “liberal slant” exists)
  • Good Question: Is there a liberal slant in news media, as some critics claim?

–Find the best sources to help you answer your questions.  Before you accept anything from sources like Wikipedia, be sure you understand what Wikipedia is and how it is created.

–Use search engines like Google for general browsing on topics, but when you begin your serious research, it’s time to put away child’s tools and use serious ones.  Go to online databases of periodicals (like EBSCO and OCLC FirstSearch) and focused search tools like the Internet Public Library.

–This Term Paper is, in some ways, your introduction to the “academic” approach to ideas.  This means critical thinking about every aspect of the paper, including sources.  Reject any source that seems less than completely credible unless your critique of that source will be part of the way you answer one or more of your research questions.

–Use your Research Log to keep yourself moving on the Term Paper. (That is its purpose, after all.)  Each entry in the RL should move you forward in a generally logical progression.  It’s not that you can compose the Term Paper simply by slapping together the individual RL entries (for one thing, it probably wouldn’t be long enough), but keeping up with the RL will mean that you’re working on the TP regularly.  It also helps you to build your source list as you go. 

APPENDIX II: *Description of the Research Log

Once a week, beginning Sept. 13, you will prepare and submit one entry in a Research Log, a record of progress in your research for the Term Paper. The individual week’s assignment will be available at the beginning of the week.  (If you haven’t yet read the Term Paper assignment page, you’ll need to do so right away.)  You will complete 10 entries in the Research Log, and each will be evaluated according to the Research Log rubric.  The last RL entry will be due Nov. 22.

APPENDIX III: *Research Log Assignments 1 through 10

Entry 1: Using the topic you’ve chosen for your Term Paper, compose a series of questions you’ll use to focus your investigation into that topic. One question should be the central guiding question that you’ll try to answer in the Term Paper itself; the rest should be smaller, more focused questions that you will need to answer in order to make a judgment about the central issue. 

Entry 2: It’s time to begin your research. Using one of the questions you posed for Entry 1, find an answer to that question in a source (article, webpage, database, etc.) you find on your own. Write a paragraph in which you summarize the information from that source in a page or less.  Include both an in-text citation in the paragraph itself AND the separate full citation on a separate “Works Cited” page.

Entry 3: Using one of the questions you posed for Entry 1 (or another question that you have posed since), find two or more sources that provide an answer to that question.  Use two sources that you have not cited in a previous entry.  Write a paragraph or two in which you synthesize the information from those sources.  This will be a page or less overall.

Entry 4: Find an answer to one of your research questions in an academic/scholarly/peer-reviewed journal.  Write a paragraph or two in which you summarize the information from that source.  This will be a page or less overall.  For help finding articles in academic journals, see the periodical databases available to you through the SRC Library.  EBSCO databases, for example, can be searched with “Scholarly journals” as a search limiter. 

Entry 5: Using one of the questions you posed for Entry 1 (or another question that you have posed since), find two or more sources that provide an answer to that question.  Use two sources that you have not cited in a previous entry; at least one of your sources should be from an academic/scholarly source.  Write a paragraph or two in which you synthesize the information from those sources.  This will be a page or less overall.

Entry 6: ENG 102 The Term Paper: Research Proposal

You will prepare a formal research proposal as part of your term paper project.  You must define the nature and significance of your research question and indicate how you will answer that question in your term paper.  In other words, the research proposal is a document separate from the term paper, but it is a plan for that paper.

The research proposal is a preliminary look at your project, a plan for the term paper itself. 

The target audience for the proposal (NOT for the Term Paper) is your instructor

The proposal’s purpose is to give you and your instructor a way of reviewing your plan for  the paper and judging whether that plan is viable and shows progress

Format

The proposal should include the following information divided into corresponding sections with appropriate headings:

Rhetorical situation (for the Term Paper):  Describe your target audience for the Term Paper (not for the Proposal) and intended “publication” information.  Describe the print/electronic publication or the occasion for the presentation (see the Term Paper assignment page for details on choosing your target audience).

Summary:  statement of your guiding question.  You will briefly indicate the focus of your study and your guiding question, explaining how the question is situated within a larger context in a given discipline (nursing, literary studies, engineering, etc.).

Rationale:  statement of genesis, nature, and significance of the question and a projected outcome of the study.  In the rationale, you will answer these questions:

Why is the question significant?

How did you become interested in the question?

What are the goals of the study?

How will your research benefit the discipline and your readers (remember your rhetorical situation as described above)?

Methodology:  Literally, your research methods.  In your case, you will be reviewing the existing literature on the subject, although research methodologies are numerous in more formal situations.

Format:  Indicate MLA or APA style.

Conclusion:  statement of anticipated results and benefits of your research to yourself and to readers of your term paper.  Summarize what you’ve learned through your research so far.

Works to be consulted:  list of sources (7 minimum) you plan to review or have reviewed as part of your study

References: statement of works cited in the proposal itself.  You will probably cite sources in the “Summary” and “Conclusion” sections of your proposal.

Requirements: Length:  2-3 pages  Documentation style:  MLA or APA

Entry 7: Make one arguable claim regarding your Term Paper topic and support it with evidence from at least two sources that you have not used in previous entries (except #6, of course). This should be a paragraph or two in length. As always, be sure to properly document your sources. This is an argument synthesis related to some aspect of your Term Paper topic.

Entry 8: Using at least two sources–at least one of which must be an article from an academic journal–Make another arguable claim regarding your topic and support it with evidence from at least two of your sources. This should be a paragraph or two in length. As always, be sure to properly document your sources. This is an argument synthesis regarding some aspect of your Term Paper topic.

Entry 9: Find one source related to your Term Paper topic in which the writer of the source makes an argument. Briefly analyze that argument in a page or less, according to the principles of analysis you’ve learned. 

Entry 10: Submit a file with 1) your sources and aspects of your topic listed in grid form and 2) a complete list of all your sources for the Term Paper. Include, obviously, indicators of which sources address which aspects. Be sure to include the correct citation form for each of your sources. The grid must be accompanied by a complete source list in correct citation form (MLA or APA). 

APPENDIX IV: *Rubric for assessing individual Research Log entries.

SCORING RUBRIC FOR RESEARCH LOG–10 points possible

Entries not submitted by deadline will receive zero points.

10 points

  • Addresses assignment completely
  • Shows careful critical thinking
  • Documents any sources correctly

8 points

  • Addresses assignment
  • Shows some critical thinking
  • Documents any sources

6 points

  • Does not address the assignment directly
  • Shows little or no critical thinking
  • Does not document sources

4 points

  • Shows little or no awareness of an assignment
  • Demonstrates no thought
  • May use no sources at all (if they are required)

APPENDIX V: Research Log Survey (post-Term Paper deadline)

1.  Do you believe the Research Log helped you write a better Term Paper?  If so, how?
2.  What were the best (most helpful) aspects of the Research Log?
3.  What might make the Research Log a more helpful activity for getting you ready for the Term Paper?

–Douglas Okey, Faculty, English, Spoon River College, IL

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