5 Steps for Better Research Essays - Room 213

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5 Steps for Better Research Essays

Do your students struggle with the research process? Are you tired of reading poorly paraphrased work? You might like to try the process that I've fine-tuned over the last few years. It's not perfect, but I've been reading much better essays since I started doing this.

The biggest problem I see with student essays is that they view the research as an end in itself, not a tool they can use to support their ideas. They use the research they find to make their points - to fill up their essays - rather than to support the points or arguments that they want to make.

To avoid this, I insist that they must choose a topic that will allow them to write a complete first draft that has NO research. Not a quote. Not a stat. I tell them that if they can't write a rough draft without looking outside themselves, then they just don't have enough to say on the topic. The essay needs to be about something they are passionate about or something that they know a lot about already -- and not because they've done research on it before. I stress that it's ok if some paragraphs are under-developed in a rough draft, because they are just getting their ideas down at this point.

The key to teaching kids to use research effectively is to focus on the steps necessary to do so. When I do a persuasive research essay, I require that they pass in all steps of the process in a writing folder, not just the good copy.  This way, you ensure that (for the most part), the students will complete each stage. Because students are required to pass in their first draft, they do not skip this all-important step of writing a rough copy that comes completely from them, with no outside sources.

To help them with this, I show them an exemplar that I've written, a draft that has no research. The draft is focused and organized, with a clear thesis and topic sentences; however it needs more detail and a lot of wordsmithing.  I point out to the students that my draft needs revision and research and that we'll use it later to show them how to improve their own essays. Next, I assign due dates for their outlines and first drafts to be complete. The past few semesters, I've put even more emphasis on the pre-writing stage with my planning stations. It's a very effective strategy to ensure that my students begin the process with an organized plan for writing their essays.

One step that many students skip is the one that requires them to actually look at their draft and decide which areas would benefit from outside information or quotations. They will just start Googling broad topics, hoping that something useful will show up in the search. To prevent this, we spent time working on how to narrow their search. First, I had them look back at my original draft. They got out their highlighters and I instructed them to indicate areas on the essay that would benefit from research -- and to note what kind of information it needed. For example, would a quote from an expert support a point? Did I need some facts and statistics for another one? They were spot on in their suggestions. It's always easier to evaluate someone else's work than one's own, so I think this step really helps them see what the need to do in their own work.

The next step, of course, was to look at  their own drafts. They highlighted and wrote notes in the margins, all before I started my lesson on how to paraphrase.

Unintentional paraphrasing is rampant. Students think they are paraphrasing properly, but they are really only changing a few words here and there. My students are always shocked when I tell them that using more than three words in a row from an outside source is a no-no. But I don't leave it at that; instead, I take them through some exercises that show them how to paraphrase and give them practice in doing so. Once I feel like they understand the steps they need to follow to research properly, we get out the Chrome Books and they begin to look for information that can support their ideas.
This year I gave them organizers to use as they researched. They recorded the information they found on the sheets, in point-form, and used these notes - rather than the original source - to include the research in their papers. This is a key step. I believe that a lot of unintentional plagiarism occurs because the kids copy-and-paste a nicely written sentence that they've found, and change a few words here and there. If, however, they record the information in short form, and work from their notes, they are much more likely to make the information their own. The essay will still be in their own voice 
and style, rather than peppered with the voice of other people.

I give them a day or two to complete the research and have them bring a hard copy of their newest draft to class.

At this point in the process, I feel like students have the basics covered. They have a draft that is focused and organized, with their ideas fleshed out with the research they found. It's time for the students to look at their word choice and sentence structure. This is always an important part of the revision process, but if we want them to smoothly incorporate research into their writing, we need to provide them with lessons to show them how to do that. For example, how do you effectively embed a quotation from an authority? How can you avoid using "says" all the time? When you use paraphrased information, how do you transition into it? Students need time to focus on those skills if we want them to smoothly incorporate their research.

They also need time to learn how to do in-text citations and works cited. Creating each is not hard. It's just time consuming. And boring. I acknowledge that fact and then give them time to work on it. I remind them how to do the citations. I show them examples of poorly done works cited and have them find the errors. And, if they do a poor job on their final copy, I ask them to redo it, because the only way they'll learn is if we hold them accountable to the process.

I know all of this takes more time, but it really is time time well spent. It has certainly made a huge difference in the quality of papers I get to read.

Do you have any tips for helping students research? I'd love to hear them!


  1. Step One, especially at the high school level, poses a problem. If students start a researched argument without doing any research, then they are starting an argument for which they believe they know the answer. When they do start to research, rather than work to learn an answer, they will work to confirm their opinions.

    Yes, they should choose topics they are passionate about, but often their opinions have been formed from unreliable sources and social media movements. Start with that passion, but research needs to come before drafting.

    1. I actually like how she is doing it because, once a student researches it, they may change their mind. I teach Public Speaking and this is an excellent way to get them to think critically.

    2. I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. From my experience, when you start with the research, students just end up badly paraphrasing information that they don't understand. I want them to learn to express their ideas (and high schoolers have great ones) and learn that research is for support when they are writing persuasive and argumentative essays. Then we do lots of exercises to learn how to research properly. We do lots of work on finding valid and varied sources, building counter-arguments, etc. so students learn to evaluate others' ideas as well as exploring their own. We sell our students short when we don't believe they can think for themselves -- even if they do need some guidance from us to do so!


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