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Updating the Research Paper (Part I)

By Tricia Ebarvia

       I vividly remember the pile of 3 ½ x 5 index cards I used to collect information for the dreaded junior year research paper.  I also remember my teacher, Mrs. Caum, telling us exactly how our paper needed to look, from the in-text citations to the footnotes.

      While the type of academic writing I did that year was valuable—I did, after all, become an English major—I’m not sure how authentic that experience was, then and especially today. The fact is that nothing screams “school” more than a traditional research paper, double-spaced in 12-pt Times New Roman font with an MLA heading and works cited page.  No doubt that students should know how to do that type of academic writing. But now that I find myself as the teacher who assigns that dreaded research paper, I’ve thought about ways to make the experience more meaningful for my students.

(Note: While I currently teach AP English Language & Composition, I’ve also used the ideas below at all levels.)


     The mere mention of the words “research paper” can elicit groans from even the best of students.  The first step in making the process a more positive one is allowing students to choose their own topic—and by topic, I really mean inquiry. Framed as inquiry, the research process is driven by a central question students develop regarding a personal interest or idea.


      When students have choice, they are more likely to stay motivated during the entire research and writing process.  After all, in the “real world,” researchers spend years driven by the questions they are most passionate about. For some students, like the student who has been passionate about music since he first learned to hum his ABCs, selecting a topic can be easy. However, telling some students that they can write about “anything” can be just as intimidating as assigning a topic.

      Thus, students actually begin their research before they decide on a central question.  Students are given a list of online publications and asked to read and annotate one article of their choice each week.  Students read editorials from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal as well as feature articles from The Atlantic or Vanity Fair.  I ask students to select articles that they find interesting and to read each with a critical eye with attention to both content and craft.   Each week, students share in class so that others can hear about articles (and topics) that may interest them.

      After students have collected 8-10 articles, I ask them to write in their notebooks about what they notice: What types of articles did they chose? What issues most attracted them? Was there a particular conflict or subject they found compelling?  What questions or issues did they find most interesting?

      At this point, some students have settled on an inquiry question and then use the remaining weeks to continue to read on that topic.  Other students, however, may still be unsure and thus use the remaining weeks to find something that interests them.


       By the time the second semester begins, students are ready to formally craft their central question(s).  What does that central question look like?  Examples include:

  • What does the popular music a time say about that particular culture or society’s values?
  • Who was right about the future: Huxley or Orwell?
  • Is feminism still necessary?
  • What do selfies and social media say about who we are?
  • What defines success in today’s society? How does a person become successful?

Generally, I do try to steer students away from controversial issues like the death penalty or abortion.  Instead, I ask students to choose a question that is personal, borne out of their experiences and passions.


       Rather than write an annotated bibliography, students compile an anthology of their research materials (this idea was the brainchild of PAWLP fellow Linda Kerschner).  Students include 1) a brief introduction with a short summary of the text and biographical information about the author, 2) the complete text of the article, and 3) four student-generated questions about the text’s craft and argument with a brief response.

      I remind students that compiling their anthologies is still about exploration and discovery.  They should not look for ten sources that agree with their point-of-view.  Nor should they look for five sources that show one point-of-view and five sources that show another.  Instead, they should look for sources that address their central question(s) from a variety of angles.

      Students are also encouraged to find diverse types of sources. Students use traditional print sources, but also visual sources, such as photographs and infographics; audio sources such as songs, podcasts and radio programs like This American Life; and video sources like TED talks and Frontline documentaries.  To help students locate sources that will meet their needs, we approach research from a variety of angles:

1. Traditional subscription research database, like Proquest or Ebsco

2. “Smarter” Google searches (here is a fantastic infographic with some tips)

3. Web technologies like Feedly, Diigo, and even Pinterest to collect, bookmark, and annotate sources (here’s a Pinterest board I created with links to recommended online sources for student use).

Click here to see one student’s final anthology project, and don’t forget to come back next week to read about strategies for drafting and to see the final product.

       In the meantime, what do you think? In what ways have you updated or adapted the research paper process for your students? What challenges or possibilities have you encountered?

Tricia EbarviaTricia Ebarvia is a teacher at Conestoga High School in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District.  She is also a PAWLP fellow, completing the Reading & Literature Institute in 2009 and the Writing Institute in 2011.  Her teacher webpage can be found at

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