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Teaching Strategies: the Research Composition Process

Jordan Catapano

Conducting research is one of the best skills a student can graduate with. It teaches students to take their personal curiosity, explore the world, and synthesize information to form their own conclusion. As students will one day have their own careers and their own lives, they must learn to find trustworthy information and conform it to their purposes.

The outcome of research may not always be a formal academic paper, but it will yield the result of a better-informed, developed opinion upon which someone could act. So when we take time to use teaching strategies to help students learn how to compose a research paper, we approach it slowly and methodically in the hopes of students comfortably grasping each step in the process.

There are many teaching strategies to helping teach students about research and composition. Here is a process – just one approach of many – that has proven profitable for students. Follow this or modify it in a way that suits your students best.

The Proposal. First, after going over the details of the assignment, I ask students to compose an informal letter “Proposal” that outlines in general terms what it is they’d like to compose their research paper about. I have students ask questions and openly brainstorm ideas they’re considering. By the end of their proposal, they officially state what it is that they’d like to research, and they include a short list of what they don’t know or what kind of information they’ll probably need to find. This allows me to see what each student wants to pursue, and I can give early feedback and guidance before they get too far underway.

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For this assignment, I generally let the students select their topic, with some guidance, of course. I could assign topics to students or ask them to pick from a list, but I want them to have some ownership over the process. If they select something they’re genuinely interested in, then they’re more likely to find better resources and to commit to a higher quality product.

Find Sources. After coming up with an initial idea for their paper, students are given an opportunity – usually multiple days – to acquire sources that will inform them on their topic. Before I let students loose in the library, we spend time talking through what kinds of sources we want and where we can find them. I often have a librarian or other professional as a guest to show students the best research techniques. Then, after students feel comfortable with how they’re going to acquire their sources, they’re given the opportunity to do so. We take our time in the library so that I can personally coach students through their actual search process.

How many sources should they find? Typically, I have a minimum number of sources students ought to incorporate into their paper, though I always encourage them to find more than the minimum simply because some sources don’t end up fitting their task as well as they hoped.

Read and Annotate Sources. After students have acquired their sources, it’s important to provide them time to adequately read them. Like the other steps, we spend time discussing what successful reading of research looks like, including note taking and annotations. And we again take time in class for students to do this task with me coaching them along the way.

By the time they’ve read each of their sources, they ought to have the following:

  • Much more knowledge regarding their topic.
  • Specific quotes, data, and passages marked for later use.
  • A clearer understanding of what approach they’ll take to their paper.
  • A knowledge of what other information they may still need to find.

Outline. Now it’s time to combine their knowledge and ideas with their research information. The outline is an essential part of the research composition process because it allows students to thoroughly draft out a plan for what their eventual paper will say. I tell students that often the outline is the toughest part, since this is where all the thinking and organization happens. If they do a good job on their outline, the rest of the process is relatively easy.

I give students both instructions and examples of what their outline ought to look like, so they feel comfortable knowing what they are working towards producing. The objective for the outline is to draft out what it is they’d like to include throughout their essay, and to write down the quotes and facts from their research that fits appropriately into each portion. I offer students advice and details for what types of content works well, but give them space to personally develop their own ideas. And of course, while they work in class, I individually coach them on their progress.

Draft. Once each student has composed an outline that integrates their ideas with the research they’ve found, they’re ready to compose a formal draft. It’s important to remind students that a draft is only a draft, and they’re allowed to make mistakes and weaknesses to it as long as they’re willing to commit to editing. Students here are given a chance to flesh out the ideas listed in their outline. Since this is where the formal composition begins and the planning ends, time in class includes a combination of instruction and writing time.

Edit the Draft. Students are largely done with their work, but the last phase is crucial. Now students must go over their initial draft – as well as your feedback – in detail. Sometimes when students think about “Editing,” they think about “Grammar and punctuation,” but this only scratches the surface. What students need to focus on varies by individual, but they may need to rearrange portions of their paper, find additional supportive research, refine an explanation or argument, add new points, clarify terms or details, and a host of elements depending on the assignment’s goal. When they’re satisfied with their product, it’s time to turn it in.

Reflection. Sure, students have submitted their final draft, but reflecting on their process and product is crucial for rounding out the research task. We can spend time chatting publically with our class, completing surveys, or conferencing with students to help them think through what worked for them and what didn’t. How confident do students feel about completing similar tasks in the future?

The Other Key Factors

There are a few other elements about the process that I ought to mention. First, if this is students’ first time completing a thorough research paper, then allow plenty of class time during class for each step along the process. Second, reinforce class work with opportunities to conference one-on-one with you throughout each step of the process. In addition to conferences, have class-wide discussions about the strategies and processes students engage in.

While I don’t recommend giving separate grades for completing each individual step of the process, it might prove beneficial to give direct, written feedback to each student. This ensures that students stay on the right track and are given an opportunity to make appropriate adjustments as they go. And speaking of adjustments, students often ask, “Is it OK if I end up changing something?” The answer is always yes. What they propose always changes by the time they’re done researching; what they outline always changes by the time they’re drafting. Writing and research is a process of discovery, so students are encouraged to reflect those new ideas and discoveries in each step of their process.

What Do You Want Students to Accomplish?

My focus as an English teacher is on the synthesis of research and the composition of an original essay based on what they’ve learned. But what do you want your students to accomplish? Your product might look entirely different depending on the age and subject matter of your course.

So let this guide be more of an inspiration or hypothetical example than a strict dissertation on how research ought to be conducted. Consider how you can show students that completing a task of this depth requires a carefully wrought process and thoughtful, systematic commitment. Perhaps begin by first listing your own objectives for your students, and then design a research process that best helps students meet those goals.

What are your keys for successfully guiding students through the research process? Share your experiences with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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