Research projects should be enjoyable

March 20, 2009|By LISA PREJEAN

The students in my 11th-grade English class are starting to work on research papers. Because selecting a topic often is the first hurdle to cross when beginning any writing project, I thought they would like some help with this process.

Actually, they asked for assistance.

"Are you going to give us some potential ideas or are we just going to be left to come up with those on our own?"

My mind envisioned all of them on a rough-hewn wooden raft that was slowly drifting out to sea. At least that's the way they made me feel. How could I refuse their plea for help?

That evening I searched the Internet for topics that would interest 16-year-olds.

What I found was quite disturbing. It's not that the topics themselves were inappropriate, although some were. As a parent, I wouldn't want my teenager to write about some of the subjects that were offered.


However, there was a much greater challenge that I encountered. Many of the Web sites offering research topic ideas were also offering research papers.

One company used this approach: "Exams just around the corner? No time for research? All assignments due in the same week? Place an order today and save 15 percent!"

Another boldly proclaimed: "Custom term paper help from $10 a page!"

A third seemed to have all the answers: "It does not matter what you need - a high school essay or postgraduate research paper, a thesis proposal or MBA dissertation - any work done with our assistance will satisfy the most demanding quality standards and will stand out in any institution."

As I read this last ad out loud to my husband, he put down the newspaper and said, "That can't be ethical."

Indeed not. What's troublesome is the smooth way this option is being offered to our young people. Hopefully they will have a gut sense to know that it is wrong to take someone else's work and claim it as their own.

But that's only one part of the problem. It seems like a lot of people are going to great efforts to avoid work. Why is that?

Why aren't those efforts poured into something constructive? Yes, research papers take time, effort and energy. But if the process is approached correctly, a student can enjoy the work and learning that takes place, especially if the topic is one that interests him.

That's one of the main reasons why I don't assign topics. A student should select an area that he or she can enjoy investigating for several weeks.

After sifting through the sites offering various research paper services, I found several university sites that offered legitimate help and lists of topics.

My students examined the lists and discussed among themselves how they could approach the various topics. Sometimes it helps to have a peer say, "Hey, you should write about this."

Each student chose three to four potential topics. Then they looked for those topics in an encyclopedia. Articles contained in encyclopedias often provide an overview and refer the reader to other sources.

The students' next step is note cards, then thesis statements, plus outlines and rough drafts. It won't be easy, but I'll be with them each step of the way, encouraging them to do their own work, to learn as much as they can, to be supportive of their peers and to enjoy the process.

Why would anyone want to miss out on that?

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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