Editorial: Research paper quality depends on professors

By The Pitt News Editorial Staff

Research papers are often assigned in college in order to gauge a student’s understanding of a particular topic or text. However, the papers students often submit contain poor examples of arguments and very little actual research.

When research papers are assigned to undergraduate students, they are often left until the last minute, meaning that very little time is spent on writing and researching for the paper. Teachers provide very little guidance in the proper format for the assignment, and students are left to their own devices. Instead of assigning multiple research papers for students to tackle on their own each semester, professors should play a more active role by assigning larger, more long-term projects and ensuring that students make progress on the project over the course of the semester.

In December, teacher and education columnist Rebecca Schuman wrote an article for Slate speaking out against the assigning of research papers, stating that they waste both students’ time and her own. “Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers,” Schuman said. “It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual ‘evidence.’” 

Schuman makes a valid point. Students rarely benefit from the writing of these papers because professors generally assign one deadline — the final deadline — for students, incentivizing them to procrastinate and dedicate as little time to the research process as possible. If professors want to drastically improve the quality of the research papers they receive in response to assignments, then they should reconsider the way the assignment is evaluated.

Instead of assigning several research papers over the course of the semester, educators could assign one that’s due at the end of the semester and provide proper guidance over the course of the term. They can schedule checkpoints during the semester to ensure that students are taking time to think about the project, even if this includes requiring students to turn in a certain number of written pages. Finally, professors can diversify the ways in which students’ progress is assessed by scheduling presentations on progress made toward the final project and instituting mandatory office-hour meetings. In doing so, professors have the ability to monitor an individual student’s progress throughout the semester and ensure they have a strong understanding of the material about which they are writing.

By checking in with students about an assignment over the course of a semester, professors will be able to improve the quality of research papers and projects that students produce. Likewise, students will not feel completely left on their own when a large assignment is due.