Monday, November 01, 2010

Start Your Conferences

My students have a research paper assignment. In short, they have to come up with a real question and then do research to try to answer it. The question has to be real for them; it can't be something they already know the answer (or their answer) to.

It doesn't seem like that hard an idea to grasp, does it?

We started in on this a couple weeks ago, so they had time to brainstorm ideas and start working on finding appropriate resources.

I gave students feedback on a journal about their question and such last week, and warned the students who didn't seem to actually have questions that I didn't think they actually had questions.

This week, I'm conferencing with them.

My first conference was with a student who'd planned on writing about how to live a healthy lifestyle. I'd warned her last week that I didn't think that was a real research question, because she probably already knows how to live a healthy lifestyle.

So she came in this morning. She admitted that she hadn't done any research yet, but she had an outline for her paper.

How can you outline your paper if you haven't done any research UNLESS you already think you know the answer?

She looked at me suspiciously. And didn't quite believe that I didn't think it was good to have an outline before she started researching.

I think I got her to ask a more specific question, one that's related, but that she doesn't already know the answer to. She's uncomfortable with that. It's much easier to write a paper if you already know the answer, of course. But she can do an excellent research paper and learn something in the process if she really goes after answering her question. I have my fingers crossed.

I also have a fairly full day of conferences. I hope this is the only one who doesn't actually have a real question yet.


  1. Good luck with that. I asked for topics from my writers, and they came up with things like 1. birth control, 2. processed food is bad for you, 3. the importance of recycling. None of those are even questions, nor are they even decent topics. This is a head-meets-desk situation. Over and over again. Even worse is the fact that this is a once-a-week night class, so there's really no time to conference. That means they're calling me and emailing me in a panic during my free time. Nice, eh?

  2. That's why I focus on questions, and not topics. And then I can ask if they already mostly know the answer, and if they do, it's out, because it's not a real question for them. That totally gets rid of most birth control and abortion questions. (I did have one pretty darned good birth control paper a while back; she asked how hormonal birth control actually works.)

  3. so interesting. my daughter's taking a class on historical research, and working on a research assignment. but the assignment is "how to use archives," so that more or less precludes essays on "stuff i know already," unless they find archival sources.

    i really like this assignment, because it forces students to find more obscure sources and analyze them; google and wikipedia [or cliff's notes, textbooks, and the encyclopedia] won't do.

  4. But what about the poor students who already know EVERYTHING? How can you expect them to come up with a question they don't know the answer to?