The semester-long research essay

Assigning a huge research paper is not a frumpy, out of date teaching practice. It helps kids learn to think. Here is how I did it with minimum disruption to class:

image in public domain: freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/15996
image in public domain: freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/15996

I teach at an IB school. Our language B scores are phenomenal; of all subjects our students get their best IB scores on the Spanish assessments. On the other hand, their scores on the 4000 word research paper that they write independently are spectacularly poor. Kids do not write big research papers these days. I decided to shake that up.

If you are considering assigning some sort of large paper, researched and written in English, on some aspect of Latin America, take a look at my documents below.

Characteristics that made this project successful:

(1) I spent ONE class on this, when we went to the library in February and I showed students how to use the EBSCO academic database. Occasionally I would spend 5 minutes going over expectations, but this was not a significant part of class time. It was a barely perceptible use of class time.

(2) There was a weekly assignment which I graded based on completion. In my grade book I had a category weighted at 12%. Every week I added either 100% or 0%. The final essay is worth very little; it is the process that is valuable.

(3) Students are completely free to choose their topic, as long as it can be researched on the academic database in EBSCO (a database of scholarly and popular articles that my school subscribes to; you might have to tweak this for your school). Many kids do not understand that at first, so work hard to encourage them to find something that interests them. Themes that my students chose after preliminary research included the history of cuy in Peru, religious expression in Puerto Rico, civil war in Guatemala, homosexuality in pre-Colombian societies, women´s rights in El Salvador, folk art associated with Day of the Dead, drug trafficking and its impact on campesinos in Colombia, environmentalism in Costa Rica, Mapuche resistance to Spanish and Chilean cultures and the oil industry in Ecuador. I never would have guessed that students would choose such topics, but with enough structured preliminary research they rose to the challenge and I saw a part of their intellectual personalities that I normally do not get to glimpse.

(4) Students will try to shortchange the process thinking that the final product is the reason we do this. Be sure to grade each step in the process and glance through what they pass in to make sure they are really engaging. Assessing the process will go far to prevent much plagiarism. Also, a quick expression of interest in their work in February will keep them on track. Finally use a service like turnitin.com.

Click here to download the semester project outline that I gave them last year. Next time I will have them find their initial “preliminary research” book over Winter break rather than start in January since many needed a full month to get their hands on a book. I also attached this packet written by the Academic Support Center at American University to provide details on each step.

2 comments

  1. Hola. I just came across this article and was wondering how the year long research was going. I teach Spanish 3 but all of my kids come from traditional classes so as far as language acquisition they are almost at a level one. Would you do this again? What would you change or add?

    • The research, and the paper, were all in English (and mostly completed outside of class). I can justify this because I do not assign homework, or very little. I wanted to give these students a chance to develop a deep interest in a Latin American topic. Plenty chose topics that I would not have chosen for them, and in the end there were a handful of kids who completely failed to grasp the assignment. I would definitely keep the weekly mini-assignments that build up to make the research paper. Some mistakenly thought that just passing in a paper in the end would bring their grade up dramatically when that was not so– the value of the assignment (and the bulk of their grade) was in the process.

      However, if I were in your situation with a level 3 class that really needs basic skills, then I would assign lots of easy reading in Spanish for them to complete as homework. Take a look at the stories in my TPRS lessons, maybe even simplify them.

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