Holding the Line on the Traditional Research Essay

My classroom has not been the happiest place in recent weeks. It’s that time of the year when students are finishing up their major research essays. I take them from soup to nuts, from thinking about a narrow topic and framing research questions through the development of a thesis statement, outline, rough and final drafts. They learn how to search and assess sources and, most importantly, students learn how to make a claim about the past and defend it with the written world. For some students it is a grueling process and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it takes a certain toll on me as well – hours on end of reading and correcting, meetings with students and, on occasion, a few tears.

I am not the most creative history teacher around. Sure, I’ve experimented with social media and other digital tools, but in the end I am most comfortable with a group of kids, a couple of interesting primary sources and some well-framed questions. When it comes to assessments I ask them to write. I ask my students to do a great deal of writing throughout the year, most of which is in the form of short analytical essays. They can construct websites, make videos, fill in charts, etc. until the cows come home, but if a students leaves my class not having struggled with her analytical writing skills than I failed as a teacher.

With each year I the impression that high school history teachers are foregoing the research essay grows stronger. I hear more and more of my professor friends on social media complain about the quality of student writing. While I feel for them I wish I heard just as much about how they are addressing some of these concerns.

I do hope that I am wrong about my high school colleagues, but for now I am going to hold the line and continue to assign the major research essay.

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Common Core, which is being rolled out across the country right now, is all about writing and reading so hopefully professors will note a marked increase in writing ability in the coming years. I used to do one paper a class, now every unit culminates in a paper.

Having said that, I took AP US History when I was in high school and had to write quite a bit, but it still did not fully prepare me for a college history program. I believe that college is where the real progress on writing is made because of the quantity and rigor of writing that is expected. So college professors should just get used to the idea that they are the final step in creating good writers.

Speaking as a community college history instructor, the evidence I see suggests, Kevin, that you are not wrong about your high school history colleagues. I see little evidence that students are getting very much instruction in writing. I have just resigned myself to this role: that it’s community college that prepares young students for college, not high school.

I spent my first two years after high school in community college and it was one of the best decisions that I made. It was one of the best decisions that I made. I had excellent instructors, especially in History and English.

Keep up the good fight.

It was a couple of community college history instructors who really lit the fire for me as a student. Unfortunately the community colleges in my area seem to be less and less focused on preparing students for upper-level university work, than they are in funneling students into vocational programs. Those graduates are certainly needed, too, but I don’t think they do as good a job at general academic preparation as they were thirty years ago — it’s not a priority for them anymore. (At least that’s my sense, and I’d love to be wrong about that.)

I hear the same concerns from our professors here at UWO. High school students have a lack of writing and communication skills. We just went through a huge general education reform at our college and implemented a first and second semester required course that is housed in a discipline (like History) with discipline content, but also with a special focus on enhancing first year students’ academic skills. These classes are small (no more than 25 students- which is the first time we can guarantee that 1st year students have small classes in the first year of college). My friends who taught these courses got a chance to really help students grow as students and fill in the gaps right away. They mentioned how surprised they were with the real lack of all academic skills, including writing. One told me she started at the beginning with some of the student – “why would you bring your textbook to class?” Initial outcomes are very positive – students are doing much better overall (grade point and retention) and the professors are mentioning they are seeing much better skills in this 2nd semester all ready.

Ann,

Thanks for the comment. This sounds like a dynamite program.

It is a struggle to get them to write. I have several that are willing to take a C grade for the course instead of turning in a research paper that would result in a B grade even if the paper was scored around 60%. These are community college students who want to transfer to a four year school, but they do not understand that they are going to have to write and write well when they get to that school.

On the flip side, I have quite a few students who did some really good work on their papers. They used the writing guide I gave them, followed the steps in the process I have set up for them, and turned in strong papers. I guess the lesson here is that no matter what, some will put forth the effort and succeed while others will not and fail.

Being able to construct a readable and understandable piece of writing is not only important in an academic situation, but also in the work-a-day world. I was fortunate to have high school and college teachers who not only had us write but were also brutally (but fairly) critical in their assessments. Keep after ‘em Kevin — they’ll appreciate it later.

What it means to read and write is very different today than it was even twenty years ago. The internet and social media are changing the form of writing and reading, mostly bypassing structure and research.

What hasn’t changed is the need in business for people who can structure a logical argument, communicate ideas, and muster facts from research. Educators like yourself who continue to emphasize writing are giving their students a real advantage when they eventually move into their professions.

You make a great point Kevin. I work at an environmental consulting firm with staff bios that are as varied as there are degrees and disciplines. Our employees have graduated from schools that range from the Ivy League level – to overseas study programs and the consistent skill-set that resonates throughout the company is the ability to conduct research, formulate an analysis, and communicate the findings through quality writing. I am amazed at how many history majors, to include our firm’s founder, have history degrees. If you can teach a student how to read and write well, their employment options after graduation will be far and wide.

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