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Published in Print: November 20, 2002, as Relegating Student Research to the Past

Relegating Student Research to the Past

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It was once a staple of the high school history class: an in-depth assignment that required students to delve into a single compelling issue, event, or figure. But now, there are signs that the formal research paper—a rite of passage for generations of history students—may itself go down in history.

Teachers across the country are abandoning this introduction to historical research, surrendering to the constraints of time, curriculum requirements, testing, and other factors that make extended student papers in history and social studies seem increasingly impractical.

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"When I started teaching in 1989, I was enthusiastic about research papers," said Mark Klopfenstein, who teaches at Blue Valley High School in Stillwell, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. "Then I got buried under these papers with no time to do them justice."

A survey scheduled for release this week confirms that Mr. Klopfenstein isn't the only educator losing enthusiasm for such assignments. While history and social studies teachers believe research papers of at least moderate length are important, the survey found, most only require their students to complete short essays or summaries of assigned readings.

In the case of Mr. Klopfenstein, he once imagined the engaging written assignments he would require of students. They would immerse themselves in the work of professional historians, he thought, probe the intricate issues and contexts that surrounded key events of yesteryear, and plot their findings in thoughtful, carefully structured prose.

Reality hit at the end of his first semester in the classroom, when he encountered a flood of hefty research papers just before grades were due.

Once he was able to dig into the pile, Mr. Klopfenstein was further discouraged by the varied quality of the students' work. Only a small fraction of the students, he recalled recently, fulfilled the letter and spirit of the assignment and appeared engaged in the learning process.

Another group was careful to meet the technical requirements of the paper, compiling facts in the prescribed format, using the minimum number of sources. A third group, Mr. Klopfenstein said, whiled away weeks of valuable research time, only to slap together papers in "a half- hearted and fairly inadequate" manner.

It wasn't long before he abandoned such assignments altogether.

'Library in the Sky'

Earlier this year, The Concord Review, the only publication dedicated to high school history essays, commissioned the "History Research Paper Study" to get a better feel for such papers' place in high school classrooms. The survey of a nationally representative sample of 400 public high school history teachers was conducted by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut, with funding from the Albert Shanker Institute, an entity of the American Federation of Teachers.

Advance details of its findings were released to Education Week last week.

The teachers polled were asked about the types of written work they assign in their classes, as well as the factors that affect those curriculum decisions. While nearly all of the respondents viewed the research paper as a valuable instructional tool, more than six in 10 said they never assign manuscripts of 3,000 to 5,000 words, and eight in 10 do not require longer papers. Even students in Advanced Placement or honors courses are unlikely to encounter such assignments, the survey found.

"These papers offer a crack in the door to the great library in the sky. They give students an idea of what knowledge is all about," said Will Fitzhugh, the editor and publisher of the Concord, Mass.-based journal. "They offer an introduction to mastery of the subject, an introduction to scholarship, an introduction to the kind of reading you have to do before you can [draw conclusions] about anything." Mr. Fitzhugh, a former public school history teacher, started the Concord Review in 1987 to recognize student scholarship in history and to provide an incentive—publication—to students interested in studying a topic in greater depth than the curriculum might demand.

In addition, he initiated the National Writing Board two years ago. For a fee of $65, the board provides students with an independent written review of their work suitable for submission with their college applications.

The Review has earned praise from historians and other scholars for showing that high school students are capable of rigorous exploration and reflective analysis. But the quarterly journal has been criticized for the disproportionate number of essays it publishes from private school students. That fact, Mr. Fitzhugh believes, reflects the dwindling research and writing opportunities offered to public school students. "I just don't get [many] essays from public school students," he said.

Curricular Constraints

Constraints on the curriculum have led many teachers to desert the tradition for shorter, more self-reflective assignments that tend to ask for student opinions rather than informed analysis.

"I always feel driven by the need to cover the content," said Mr. Klopfenstein, who teaches Advanced Placement history. "Sometimes that means sacrificing depth in order to achieve the kind of breadth I think is necessary."

The demands of state standards, and the need to prepare students for state tests, leave little time for lengthy projects, some teachers say. Moreover, they contend, state tests in the subject and graduation requirements rarely demand that students acquire the kinds of skills they might encounter through a rigorous research assignment.

"We have these content standards, and [on state tests] extended writing has gone by the wayside," said Lynda Motiram, a social studies teacher at Old Mill High School in Millersville, Md. "I would like to assign research papers to all my students, but the curriculum doesn't allow it."

Those concerns were echoed in the Concord Review survey, in which nearly a third of respondents said they don't assign longer writing assignments because they take away from instruction time. More than 80 percent reported having difficulty fitting in the hours required to read and grade papers. Some 70 percent said they must give students a lot of extra help in completing the assignments.

Ms. Motiram now saves such assignments for students in her honors economics class, an elective course that allows more flexibility. But Ms. Motiram has found in her six years in the classroom that she must first get back to basics before her students jump into their research on influential economists and the evolution of economic principles.

"It's very challenging material, but we have to first spend time on basic things like writing," she said. "I am constantly surprised by the poverty of the writing skills of these extremely smart and insightful students." So Ms. Motiram explains to students the proper structure and form of a research paper, how to write an introduction, when and how to cite sources, and how to find credible resources on and beyond the Internet. She took her students to a local university library this fall and asked a research librarian to explain the resources that are available, in the hope that the papers' quality will improve.

Even given that background, however, teachers encounter other problems with students' capacity to produce high-quality work. To combat the inevitable procrastination with which most students confront long-term assignments, teachers must help students stay on track by requiring them to turn in proposed bibliographies, outlines, and rough drafts well before the final deadline.

A Different Tack

Keeping students honest is also a challenge. In the survey, nearly half the teachers cited plagiarism as a problem, with more than a third saying that cheating occurs often in research assignments.

Allison McAdams encountered the problem last year as a long-term substitute at a magnet high school in Louisville, Ky. In her AP world-history class, she discovered that a third of her 11th graders had copied large portions of their papers from the Web without citing the sources.

"Since we are covering the entire history of the world in a single year, I wanted at least one topic they would pick that they could delve into on a deeper level," said Ms. McAdams, who is now in her first full year of teaching at duPont Manual High School. "When I was planning my curriculum for this year, [the incidence of plagiarism] made me rethink the assignment."

Ms. McAdams has adjusted her approach. Her students now must participate in the National History Day program, which encourages research in depth on historical topics, but allows its presentation in a variety of formats, from papers to dramatic readings to documentaries. "It's still research-based, but they can't plagiarize that easily," Ms. McAdams said. "They have to do the work."

Mr. Klopfenstein, the Kansas teacher, has taken a similar tack, allowing students to create multimedia presentations on topics closely linked to the curriculum. While the projects tend to inspire greater commitment from even his lower-performing students, he laments that they are losing out on the more formal research and writing experience a lengthy paper provides.

"What they're missing is just the discipline of doing the research paper," he said. "To have to follow a certain process and fairly rigorous rules for how to gather information and present it is valuable for its own sake."

Mr. Fitzhugh of The Concord Review agrees. He has become passionate in his belief that most students should be expected to tackle the rigors of a full-length research paper. "The kids can do it, but it has to be demanded of them, and they have to be given time, and teachers have to be given time," he said.

He points to published examples in the Review, which have ranged from 5,000 to 21,000 words and encompassed such diverse topics as slave songs and the invention of the Ferris wheel.

A recent issue includes one of a small number of selections from public school students that the publication has printed.

In the Spring 2002 issue, Mark Mayer, then a senior at Boulder High School in Colorado, explored the debate between Andrew Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the best path for the nation's economic policies. He wrote that the conflicting ideologies of the two "framed an ongoing struggle between competing visions of America that continues today."

Mr. Klopfenstein has shown the article to his students.

"I want them to see the kind of quality work that high school students can produce," he said, "and I hope they will be inspired by that."

Vol. 22, Issue 12, Pages 1,12

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