Teaching & Learning Tips

A collection of tips and tools designed to aid in transitioning instruction online.

Re-Thinking the Term Paper

Aug 13, 2021

rethinking-the-essay-paper-blogMJ was in a bind. They took several difficult courses this semester and are having trouble keeping up. Now it’s the night before the term paper for your course is due, and they haven’t started yet. They might be able to throw something together to get a C. But maybe, if they are careful, they can borrow some words from the Internet and turn in something that gets a better grade…

In the story above, MJ made some poor decisions in the past that put them in a position to make a very bad decision now. They should have done things differently. Still, there are some things you can do to help students avoid being in MJ’s position while still maintaining high standards for your course.

  • Consider whether you need to assign a big term paper. Long, high-stakes term papers are great if you need to determine if students can implement a large-scale research project. Instead, you need to determine if students can understand, analyze, interpret, or evaluate course material, consider assigning shorter papers throughout the semester. You can assess a broader range of student learning that way, and students are not faced with a single make-or-break paper.

Assign only the elements of a term paper you care about the most. If you want to know if students can identify and understand scholarly sources, assign an annotated bibliography. If you want to know if students can develop good research questions, assign a prospectus for one or more research papers they don’t go on to write. If you want to know if students can express themselves well in writing, assign forms of writing that students may use in their future careers: 

  • Assign papers, memos, blog posts, etc. Long research papers are required in very few careers.
  • Stage or sequence the big paper. If a significant term paper is appropriate for your course, break the project into smaller chunks with individual due dates. Instead of asking just for a 15-page paper by the end of the semester, ask for:
    • a list of potential paper topics by six weeks into the course
    • a prospectus where they briefly explain and defend their thesis by eight weeks
    • an annotated bibliography by ten weeks
    • a draft for peer review by twelve weeks
    • the final version at the end of the semester

From the story above, MJ would not have run into trouble if their teacher had staged the paper or opted for several smaller papers – MJ would have needed to stay on pace to meet the intermediate due dates. They would likely understand the material better from working with it throughout the semester instead of only at the last minute. You are likely to receive better papers because you can steer your students in better directions when you see their progress throughout the semester.

Since you will be grading most of this, it is to your advantage to assigning only the written work that will help you assess whether students have achieved your course objectives. The big term paper may be more than you need.