Why the Traditional Research Paper is a Worthless Task for High Schoolers

I realize that what I’m about to say seems blasphemous to the art of teaching English, particularly to those who have spent the greater part of their careers establishing and perfecting unit plans on The research paper. I’m all about old-school when it’s appropriate. For instance, I recently pulled out my diagramming tools from the archives because my freshmen came to me without the skills necessary to identify basic sentence structures. Was this old school? Yes, but it accomplished its goal. I honestly don’t care if something is old school, new school, or future school; I just want my students to learn the skills needed to contribute and succeed in today’s society.  So here it is: Going to the library, finding random print sources on the assigned topic, copying notes on notecards (or whatever method of madness the teacher assigns), than formulating this information into a research paper is no longer a worthwhile venture for today’s high school student. Shriek, faint, argue, do whatever. I don’t foresee myself budging on my position, and all I ask is that my reasons be considered. 

Clearly, we have a learning crisis. Need a little more convincing? Consider this recent media advisory: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/01/prweb5010934.htm. In this study, “students identified by their schools as the most proficient online readers participated in a study at the New Literacies lab. They too fell short in the ability to critically analyze what they found on the Internet. In the research study, they were asked to learn about an effort to “Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.” Students had no problem locating a website dedicated to the cause (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/) and insisted on the existence of the made-up story, even after researchers explained the information on the website was completely fabricated.” This worthwhile article then goes on to list the common problems that Dr. Leu, the lead researcher, notes will impact our future.

Please notice that I am directing my claim at high school students. I support the need for undergraduate and graduate students to sift through library stacks and published journals. Also, notice that I do not say anything about the negativity of “synthesizing.” My claim of worthlessness if solely directed at this traditional-type research paper in the high school setting. These students, many of whom will not find themselves in higher academia, find this arduous task to lack relevance. And, I know that they’re on to something. This type of research may serve the student well for college-level classes, but the standard high school student has bigger issues. Today’s students get most of their information of the internet. Actually, let me take this a step farther. Today’s worker gets most of his information of the internet.

What type of discernment and critical teaching skills are we advocating when we allow a 21st century student to simply combine library sources? How much better served would that teenager be if he spent that time understanding the basics to interpreting the validity and reliability of an internet source? Like it or not, everything will eventually be online during this student’s lifetime. Wouldn’t we rather that he know how to filter this information than go to the library and find a few sources to simply please his teachers? I  think teachers are running from this task, not because of their love the traditional research paper, but because of their fear of charting the unknown? Or, perhaps we haven’t even considered the disservice of what we are doing. What’s more difficult: Giving a student a checklist, or teaching a student how to think? Why are we not doing this? Are we going to be the forerunners, or are we going to wait?

Does advocating the use of the online research paper actually present more problems? Of course it does, but that’s why we need to teach it. Just this morning my husband sent me an interesting article about this ridiculous rumor about Brett Favre going on Dancing with the Stars. This rumor was reported by reputable online sources, but with further investigation, it was merely a suggestion made by a gossip columnist. It was utterly untrue. Instead of sending my students to roam around the library next year, I want to teach them how to avoid making such mistakes that will alter the integrity of information in our society.



  1. Sarah,
    That’s awesome! I have been in that same boat – in regards to teaching my students how to think. It seems like they don’t know how to analyze critically or even care to. In about another month, I’m going to be starting research paper with my students but haven’t figured out exactly how or what yet. I just know they have to know how to write and how to think.

  2. […] get a kid in trouble; I just let trouble expose itself. Currently, my freshmen are working on their research paper, which I have tried to make as straightforward and minimal as possible: It’s only 3-4 pages, […]

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