Friday, July 16, 2010

Are College-Bound Students Prepared To Write Research Papers?

Perhaps not.

Many high schools no longer teach students to write a research paper, history teacher Doris Burton told Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who believes college-bound students should have to write a 4,000-word paper (roughly 16 pages). In response, Kate Simpson, an English professor at Lord Fairfax Community College asked her first-year students, who’d just finished a three-week research writing project, to write about their preparation for writing long papers.

She said she discovered that 40 percent of her 115 students thought that their high schools had not prepared them for college-level writing. Only 23 percent thought they had those writing skills. Other responses were mixed.

Twenty-nine percent “felt that students should be taught to write lengthy papers in high school,” Simpson reported.

“Not once in my four years of high school was I required to turn in a paper of over 1,000 words,” one student wrote. Several others said their teachers didn’t assign long papers because they didn’t have time to grade them.
I like the "no excuse" approach taken by some teachers at San Jose's Downtown College Prep:

San Jose’s Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, Our School, sent all of its first graduating class to college. When students visited Sonoma State the following year, Javier complained that he hadn’t been prepared to write a footnoted research paper. In the bus on the way back to school, the teachers redesigned the curriculum to ensure that in future every student would write a college-style research paper before graduation. “Javier was right,” the history teacher told me. “Students need to learn this before they go to college.”
Good on them for taking responsibility and correcting what they were told was an inadequacy in their program.

(By the by, I met Joanne fours years ago and bought a copy of Our School out of the trunk of her car. It's the kind of book teachers like to read. And yes, she autographed it for me.)


Ellen K said...

I do not envy Language Arts teachers. Students today were weaned on television and many expect to be electronically entertained in every aspect of their lives. They do not read books. I have had seniors proudly tell me that my research project is the only time they have ever entered the library. And although I teach an elective (Art) I am appalled by the limitations many of my students have in regards to research. They have had any intellectual curiosity bleached out of them by the teaching of test taking strategies rather than actual coursework. But what is sadder is that the students who can read and write will end up running things. Unfortunately, these kids will have to take on more responsibility as their peers become more and more academically numb.

maxutils said...

165 students times 4 pages (avg English paper length) is 660 pages of reading, every time a paper is assigned . . . and, not just reading, but reading that must be critiqued, corrected, and analyzed. A longer paper of, say, 15 pages puts you up over 2500. It is simply not practical to do large quantities of writing with class sizes where they are today for English teachers . . . and, while I recognize the need for teaching how to do research papers, and applaud San Jose for electing to do it . . .I guarantee you that something else was reduced to compensate.
Additionally, research papers used to be confined to subject areas -- primarily the social sciences, Moving to an English class that is less concerned with literature and more with research is not a good thing. Multiculturalism is already pushing classics that should be read out of the classroom, and this trend would exacerbate the situation.
What we should do? Lower class size in all 7-12 English classes (I would recommend 5x24), while requiring more writing in each class; then, require at least one major research paper in each year of social studies in high school.

Erica said...

I had a wonderful AP English class in high school in which we were required to read a short subject and write a cohesive topic response (5-paragraph style) every single day.

We peer-reviewed and graded them so it wasn't overly burdensome on the teacher, and the grading guidelines helped at least some of us learn how to objectively review our own work.

Essay and research paper writing was a breeze for me in college, because they were all essentially longer versions of the same thing.

maxutils said...

And, you can effectively do that in an AP class, because the students already know what good writing is. Trust me -- most do not.