Consider This: Yes, Your Whole Class Can Work on the Same Research Paper

I teach archaeology. Around 2005, I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the big term paper. Many students weren’t getting very…

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I teach archaeology. Around 2005, I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the big term paper. Many students weren’t getting very much out of writing those 20–30 pagers. Frankly, I wasn’t getting much out of it either.

Most of the papers I was reading at the end of a semester had clearly been painful to write. They were mechanical. There were 5 pages of content stretched over 30. There was no question. No answer. They were perhaps even more painful to read. I don’t think students had learned much from writing them that would be of lasting value, to them or to anyone else.

Every semester, a few papers were outstanding. The students had engaged with their topic. They had asked a good question. They had put in the hard work of pursuing it. They had done a meaningful survey of the literature from the point of view of their research question. Maybe they had even collected some data or done a few experiments. They had come to a conclusion, and they had tried to explain it as well as they could. That was the experience I wanted all my students to share. Those were the skills I wanted them to develop. Those papers were the exception, not the rule.

At first, I had tried improving the situation by introducing more graded intermediate steps in the production of the term paper: a research question due in first couple weeks. An outline a couple of weeks after that. A list of relevant literature and a draft of a methods section.

I was trying to chunk the work so that students realized that a term paper was a term paper. That it took time to write. That it took intellectual labor. It hadn’t worked. By 2005, I knew that the big term paper was not doing anything I was interested in, and certainly nothing most students were interested in.

Getting there

After taking many years to admit to myself what I had known for a while, it took me almost ten years to give myself permission to do something different. Once I did, it quickly paid off. There are many reasons not to try something new. By assigning big papers, I was meeting my own internalized expectations, those of my department and university, and significantly, those of students. Those who wanted a B or a C knew how to get one. Those who were genuinely interested and put in the work got an A. In a few minutes of reading, I could usually accurately predict which category a paper would fall into. It was tidy. Doing something else was scary for me and for everyone else involved.

The first question I asked myself was: what else can I do? That was, of course, the wrong question. I eventually came up with the right question: what else should I do? I should do something that allows my students to understand how the papers I assign them to read are produced. Something that allows them to experience the process behind a scholarly contribution, from start to finish. Something that gets them engaged in a memorable intellectual adventure, which every paper should.

I decided that we would all write one term paper together, and that we would all be involved in every step of designing, researching, and writing it. I started small. I tried the approach in an upper level course with 6 or 7 students, mostly graduating. It worked well. Students were engaged, they seemed to get a lot out of it, but then that’s the outcome of most small advanced seminars.

It gave me the confidence to try it on a larger scale. After a few more small experiments, I used the approach in a larger, mid-level course of about 30 students, mostly second and third years. A small majority were majors, and a significant minority weren’t.

The project

Since this was a new and unfamiliar format for students, I had to answer some questions and address some anxieties. Yes, we were going to write just one paper of no more than 30 pages. Yes, we would all be working together on it for the entire semester. No, your grade would not depend on the performance of others. I would grade you individually, on your documented contribution at the various stages of the project: formulation, review of literature, design, data collection, analysis, and writing.

With the anxiety of group grading out of the way, students seemed game for the experiment. After all, how hard can it be to write a 30 page paper with 30 people in the group? That’s one page per person! For a whole semester! My trap was set.

Throughout the semester, I acted as a guide and a resource for the group effort, a kind of research consultant and moderator. I let the process unfold and nudged it once in a while. We dedicated half of each 90 minute class period to workshopping the paper together. I would start by giving a standard lecture and then we would move to our project.

The course dealt with cultural evolution. We spent the first couple of workshop periods discussing what would be an interesting instance of culture change to study. People emailed me suggestions, with little write ups. We discussed trends we had observed over time, such as changes in fashion, language, or behaviour. We discussed how we had a good record of behavioural change over time in television and film. When the show CSI came up, we settled on the change we all thought had taken place in film and television over the past few decades from underhand to overhand flashlight holding.

For the following two weeks, we discussed how we would tackle this. Fresh from their first lectures and initial readings on culture change and evolutionary theory, students wanted to identify the evolutionary forces that had produced the change. This was ambitious. I asked them some simple questions. Do we know that there has, in fact, been a change? If so, do we know when it took place? Can you show me evidence?

After much workshopping, those became our main research questions. It was slowly dawning on students that our main research output for the semester would be one single line graph. They started to suspect that they had signed up for a great deal more work than they had imagined. But by then, they were fired up. Having asked the question of whether there was a really a transition, they wanted to see that graph. They wanted to test their hypothesis. They wanted to know. They were engaged.

Having done the easy part of the work, that is, coming up with a cool question and a project, we got down to the hard part. I asked them how they planned to find out whether there was a transition from underhand to overhand flashlight holding in film and television. Answering this question and agreeing on a methodology took the students a good three weeks. We would have to watch films and television programs. How many? Why that number and not some other? From when to when? Why from then and not from some other period? How would we decide which ones? Why those and not others? What would we watch for? How would we record and share our observations?

It was amazing, and a privilege, to witness those debates unfolding in the classroom. If important questions didn’t naturally emerge from the discussions, I would ask them. I tried to create space for all to contribute. Some, though, preferred to participate by posting their thoughts on our online discussion group, or even by sending them to me by email after class. That was OK. They were contributing, and I could see their thoughts evolving.

Armed with a sample and a record sheet, we were ready to get down to business. There was much watching of films and television, and students were visibly excited to update their colleagues on their recent findings at each in-class workshop, and online in between. There was much speculation about what the slowly accumulating observations might mean. The movie M*A*S*H, to our surprise, showed both behaviours as early as 1970. We were all disappointed that the X-Files, which we thought might have been turning point, had not shown up in our sample, but its successor Millennium (1996) had at least 4 instances of overhand hold! After a few weeks, we had a pretty solid graph.

The outcomes

As we hit each waypoint in our project, we had started drafting sections of the paper: defining the problem, reviewing the literature, describing our method. That way, I helpfully explained, we wouldn’t have to write everything all at once at the end, and we could focus on analysis and reporting.

Each time I have done this exercise, students have spontaneously come up with the idea of appointing editors and contributors for each section of the paper. Small groups work on each section and send their material to an editor who puts it together. This allows students to focus on and engage more deeply with the parts of the process that interest them most, while still being exposed to every step.

Two thirds through the semester, we had collectively done a massive amount of work. We had come up with a graph. It showed obvious change over time. How confident were we that our observations were an accurate representation of reality? Had we done enough? Had we done it right? How far could we go in our interpretation? How would we write this up? Would anyone care?

Students were stunned to encounter such uncertainty after having done so much work. It gave them a whole new perspective on research and its products. It was a valuable lesson of exactly the kind I wanted them to learn. A second valuable lesson learned was that this was the end of the project, but could have been the start of an entire research program. We had started with one question and were ending with many. Finally, students had realized that it is much easier and more pleasant to write when you have something to write about.

When I have used this exercise, students have consistently reported that they were shocked at the amount of work that goes into writing a proper paper. They have reported that they have become more critical and sophisticated consumers of research. They have said that it changed the way they approached their other academic work. I could see that they were stronger writers.

I don’t think I can reasonably ask for better outcomes.

If you’re interested in the topic of teaching and learning, join your peers on May 2nd at the 2019 Festival of Teaching and Learning.Festival of Teaching and Learning.

André Costopolous — Vice-Provost and Dean of Students

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André Costopoulos, PhD, joined the University of Alberta as Vice Provost and Dean of Students in July, 2016. Born and raised in Montreal, Costopoulos holds a BA (Hons) in anthropology from McGill, an MSc in anthropology from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in archeology from the University of Oulu, Finland. He began his career in 1999 as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001, he joined McGill as a research associate and sessional instructor in the Department of Anthropology and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. From 2012–2016, he served as McGill’s Dean of Students.

A version of this article was originally published on Inside Higher Ed on February 11, 2019.Inside Higher Ed on February 11, 2019.