Rethinking the Research Paper

Writing a literary research paper is a required component in the dual-enrollment class that I teach. Many things about this paper are unchangeable: the length, the MLA format, and the fact that I have to evaluate all of them. In order to make this process more enjoyable for all parties involved, I decided to rethink three key areas of the research paper process.

Widen the topic net

My first years of teaching a college-level class to seniors, I had a very narrow idea of what I considered “literary merit” and therefore worthy of being a research paper topic.  Contemporary writers were fine as long as we had a book of literary criticism on him or her sitting on our library shelves.  A few years ago I began to loosen this requirements with outstanding results.   Many students still feel more comfortable choosing a work that Harold Bloom has written on, while students who go the more unconventional route know that they will have to work harder to gather the resources to support their thesis statements, but they will have more fun along the way.

Recently research papers have been successfully written on When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash, the works of Andrea Gibson, the works of Shel Silverstein, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Foer to name a few.

Peer Editing

Peer editing was always something that I loved the sound of. Picture it: students working diligently on each other’s papers returning them with thoughtful comments and constructive criticism. Many careless mistakes would be caught, no one would get their feelings hurt, both students would benefit from the process, and I would have nearly error-free papers to grade. Well, in reality, my early attempts at peer editing were basically a waste of time.

I saw the need for peer editing, especially when doing a literary research paper in advanced classes. There was physically not enough time in the day for me to read class sets of rough drafts and then turn right around and grade the final drafts.

I developed a Rough Draft Peer Editing Rubric that I revise each year, and my students use it in class for one period where they exchange papers. Actual comments I overheard this year included:

“I love peer editing. It is going to save my paper.”

“I love it when someone who has read my book gets my paper because they’re able to show me the gaps that I am missing.”

“I love it when someone reads my paper who has not read my book because they’re able to show me where I am unclear.”

Even if someone’s partner is a less-than-stellar editor, when a student gets his own paper back, he can then apply all of his editing skills to his own work.  The main thing is that on peer editing day there is a lot of learning going on, and all I do is facilitate it. That is a good day in the classroom.


One of the most frustrating things about research papers is the amount of time and effort that it takes for students to write them and for me to grade them. Students get their grades back and are momentarily happy, sad, angry, or indifferent; then we all move on.  I put a stop to this with one simple move. I don’t give them their grades back (well, eventually I do, but not right away).

On the day I return papers, I give them back their papers with all of my marks, highlights, and comments. Each student must take a blank rubric and decide on the score that their paper will receive based on my marks and comments. This requires students to really internalize the various grammatical or formatting errors while also reading each comment. I then trade students their “projected” rubric with my actual rubric for their papers. This year I also gave candy to anyone who was within two points of the exact score. Not only does this practice require that students pay attention to the notes left, but it very quickly reminds students that I did not “give” them the score but that this is the score that their paper deserved. If anything, students are often more harsh in their own grading.

In conclusion…

While the research paper process can be a daunting one, I do feel that once we complete this process my students are one step closer to being successful in the college classroom.

What ways have you adapted the research paper process to make is more student or teacher friendly? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

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