Research Paper Outlines: Background and Findings

Each semester, I assign a research paper worth 20% of the course grade. The paper should contain 15-20 double-spaced pages, along with endnotes documenting sources of information. Its writing should conform to the Modern Language Association (MLA) style.

This semester’s paper asked students to select a target company, research that company, identify a position or type of position within the organization of interest to the student, and to lay out a case why the company should hire the student.  

This paper has three goals:

  • To facilitate students’ critical thinking skills by encouraging them to read and synthesize information and then to leverage that information in a coherent argument.
  • To give students practical experience in conducting industry and company research.
  • To encourage students to determine how their background, skills, experience, and aptitudes can serve a target company. That ability would benefit those seeking to launch careers upon graduation and help those already holding positions to view their role within a larger context.

My writing component has two deliverables:

  • An outline that was due on February 20.
  • The paper, which is due on May 6.

The outline does not directly contribute to a student’s grade. It does provide a student with a first opportunity for meaningful feedback to determine whether his or her paper is on track, he or she is able to identify and research the relevant information, and to provide an early sketch of his/her critical arguments.

Without direct grade implications, there was a distinct probability that some students would not submit an outline. However, the absence of grade implications was by design. In substance, the outline was voluntary. Its voluntary nature provides insight into a student’s level of motivation and commitment to course success. This insight can serve as an “early warning” of sorts that a student may be at risk. Early warning can permit for timely targeted intervention to improve an at risk student’s chances of course success.

Key findings from the student submissions included:

  • Percentage of students submitting outlines: 67%
  • Outlines by length: 1 page: 50%; 2 pages: 30%; 3 pages: 20%
  • Leading issues: (1) Lack of detail concerning a company’s hiring/employment trends; (2) Lack of arguments or vague arguments concerning why a company should hire a student; and, (3) A failure to identify relevant research resources.

Those findings will be shared with the class as a whole, in addition to the customized feedback that is given to each student. Those outcomes suggest that students may have at least some difficulty in determining what information is relevant, lack awareness of appropriate research resources and the broad range of resources available at the Leonard Lief Library (a theme that came up in last semester’s survey on my students' use of the library), and/or have some weakness in building compelling evidence-based arguments for a desired outcome, even one that student’s find important to their future.

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