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Why Did my Students Bomb their Extended Research Paper?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

At the Michigan Reading Association (MRA) conference this past spring, I heard Mike Schmoker give an address about his most recent book Focus. During the address, Schmoker recommended that, when building curriculum, each summative paper should be graded for a single item (e.g., explaining quotations). I tried this on a recent epic research assignment that I gave students. Because I lack double classroom sets of the two novels we’ve been reading lately, both of my humanities classes had different assignments:

This was the war class’ prompt.

This was the other class’ assignment prompt.

This is the rubric with which both papers were scored.

When I received the papers, the average for the Africa class was a 64%, and the average for the war class was a 60%. Ouch!

Here’s where I think I went wrong.

Insufficient Modeling

Even though we’ve been working with quotes since the first week of school, I haven’t had a clear enough focus on them and I have not provided enough exemplar writing. I think that I noticed students’ weaknesses with quotes early on, but I was not assertive in ensuring that all of my students had mastered the skill. Ensuring this would not have required me to “dumb down” anything I was doing. Rather, it could simply have been more frequent modeling of the skill.

Insufficient Scaffolding

When I gave students the research questions, I framed them in a manner that made them realize they were embarking on an exceptional challenge. I could confidently tell them that the scope of the paper I was asking them to write was larger than any other paper I had ever asked my students to write, and by this point in the year they realized that was a big deal. To their credit, they energetically attacked the challenge.

The positive side of this was that students were motivated to do well. They liked the opportunity to do research. They wanted a challenge. They like going against the mold and being required to do hard things. The only problem was, they weren’t prepared for it.

In College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standard for Writing number 7 (in the Common Core State Standards [CCSS]), I see where I went wrong. Number 7 says, “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” For what I saw in their papers, my students did have focused questions to guide them, and many of them did show growth in their overall understanding of their subject, but they lacked the ability to correctly cite and explain quotations.

A key change I want to make for next year is to provide frequent, short research projects for students. I often have students conduct quick research, but I do not require them to write about their findings in the same manner that they were required to on this summative assessment.

Now that I’ve learned this lesson, does anyone have ideas for how to help the students who did poorly on this paper?

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