Research Papers in the History Survey; A Retrospective

There is nothing like the feeling of bliss after your press submit on your final grades.  I think of it as one of the few moments of completeness that an academic gets.  Everything related to the class is over and done.  Unless you are like me and you can’t seem to let go of the semester the same way I struggle to send an article out for review.  So, inevitably, I end up spending a day of my break reflecting on what worked and what didn’t.  Since I’ve written several times about my department’s commitment to assigning research papers in survey-level classes I thought I would let you in on my retrospective of this assignment.

The assignment: Write an 8-10 page research paper on a topic within the class timeframe and scope.  Students needed to use at least 3 primary sources and a minimum of 3 secondary sources.  Footnotes, bibliography, etc.

In class activities related to the paper: Although I would like to think that every class period gave students skills and knowledge for the paper I set aside 4 “workshop” days: 1. How to make a thesis, 2. What makes a viable topic, 3. How do I find sources, and 4. How to make an argument.  These workshops served two purposes.  First, they gave students deadlines throughout the semester to help them budget their time and second, they gave me time to talk with students individually within the class period which helped me show weaker students that they needed to see me outside of class.

We had a library visit, and we also made a giant database of sources for students to use.  Finally, I spent about 10 minutes of 6-7 other class meetings talking about something simple; when “I” was acceptable in a paper, how to put in a footnote, etc.

Out of class mentoring: I made myself really available to my students.  I know that this isn’t feasible for everyone but it was feasible at my SLAC and the students who availed themselves of this opportunity really benefited.  I held extended office hours in the two weeks before the paper was due and I offered to read and comment on any level of draft throughout the semester. Ultimately, I would give one “grade estimate” on a finished draft as a way of showing the student concretely where their paper stood.

Grading and Outcomes: I graded into a comment-based rubric and consciously chose not to spend much time marking up their papers.  These were final drafts and while I noted excessive grammar mistakes and other distractions, I tried to focus less on the small problems and more on the general strengths and weaknesses of the papers.

Honestly, I think students like seeing the papers marked up.  Even if they don’t pay attention to a single mark they want to know that we spent time with their papers.  I had hoped that my copious comments would show that I had spent the same level of care in my grading, but I’m not sure that it did.

In the end, the papers were good; some were great, some…less great…and many students showed marked improvement over their first drafts.  There were some things that went very well:

  1. Over 40% of my class either came to my office or emailed me a draft. I got to know them, their topics, and their writing strengths and weaknesses.  I did feel slightly like a crazy woman by the time the paper was due but I saw SO MUCH progress from students who came to see me.
  2. The workshops broke up the monotony that can become the survey and it allowed hard-working students an opportunity to check their progress and get feedback from me and their peers.
  3. They handed their papers in the Monday before Thanksgiving and I then used break to grade them. I liked this a lot because I had time to talk with them about the outcome of their paper.

There were some common problems though that bother me.

  1. Too many students still don’t understand why primary sources are necessary for a good research paper.
  2. I didn’t do enough to address how to use secondary sources. Some students used them like crutches quoting them constantly while others tossed them in a footnote and called it a day.
  3. A sizeable portion of the class still presented me with a summary of events and not an argument. I’m most bothered by this point because the ability to lay out a logical argument seems like one of the central skills a survey-level student should walk away with.

All in all, I’m heartened by the experience of assigning a research paper to 61 survey-level students.  Many of them got excited about a historical topic and others improved or at least learned about their writing weaknesses.

And now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy my break.  Oh, who am I kidding? I have a January term class that starts in two weeks! More on that next month!

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