Thoughts on Requiring Research Papers In Undergraduate Sociology Classes

Luke Hanna

Luke Hanna

October 2019 | US

"Writing a Sociological Student Term Paper: Steps and Scheduling," is the title of an article published in the American Sociological Association's journal Teaching Sociology. It is a guideline on how to instruct students to write an academic research paper. This article like many others, makes the assumption that the "research paper" is the standard form of assessment in sociology classrooms. But.......

Sociology professors should not require a research paper assignment as the “final project” or term paper assignment.

Allow me to give a couple of caveats to this statement.

1. If the course is specifically a research methods class then a research paper may be an appropriate term paper assignment. Even in the case of a research methods class, though, there are other forms of delivering sociological research findings beyond the “academic research paper.”  This traditional format including an introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis, and conclusion is an institutional coding system most effective in distributing positivist research. So again, an academic research paper may be the best assignment for a research methods course, but there should be a purpose for using this assignment rather than using this format as an automatic default.

2. If the course is specifically designed to prepare students for graduate school, then an academic research paper may be the most appropriate assignment. Again, this is not an absolute. “Graduate school” has a variety of meanings so the professor should be aware of the needs of their student body. If “graduate school” means Sociology PhD Programs, then absolutely students should have the opportunity to practice the form of writing expected in such environments. If the meaning of “graduate school” is a practical masters program, a health related program, law, or a variety of other programs, then the academic research paper may not be the most relatable skill.

Best Case for Using a Research Paper to Teach Sociology

Now, I can think of one case in which requiring an academic paper was the most appropriate assignment. This course was titled “Upper Division Research Methodologies,” a class that I took as an undergraduate and would later be hired as a Teaching Assistant. It was a course housed in the university’s Honors Program and was intended to teach students how scholars do research in their field. In this case, scholars in sociology write academic research papers, so the assignment was fitting. Even in this case, though, students studying history or literature would have different final products then a sociology student.

This brings me to my point, a small portion of the students who take undergraduate classes are going to move on and become professors of sociology, so we should stop wasting our time teaching and grading students’ ability to write an academic research paper or even writing in such a style. In reality, a lot of students will see the research paper as a waste of their time, as well. Again, aside from those who already decided to advance their education in sociology, a majority of students will never have to write an academic research paper in their lives. So, we really are wasting their time.

The skills that sociology students need to learn is how to access and interpret research findings. First, it says something about the accessibility of sociological knowledge that “interpretation” is a trained skill. Anyhow, I believe that students should be taught how to access and interpret sociological knowledge. We need to teach them about the major journals in sociology, we need to expose them to the American Sociological Association and its subfields, and we need to teach students how to read academic research. The best way to accomplish the latter point is to teach the structure of academic writing within the context of its purpose, rather than teach this form of writing as the default or “best” form of communicating sociological findings and theories.

Solutions for Building a More Engaged Classroom

This is not simply a piece of writing suggesting a problem, this is a problem that I have been seeking to address steadily over five years in the classroom and I have come up with two strategies that work for me. These are not necessarily the only ways to provide students a more relatable experience in the sociological classroom, but I would like to address some of my success and struggles using these strategies.

1. The first assignment that I used rather than a research paper was a group project using Twitter. Using social media in the classroom has been the best way to see and assess student growth. Reading student tweets gives me the clearest view of , "wow, they really get it," or "I need to go over this, again." My trials using Twitter in the classroom have single-handedly created by best teaching moments and I encourage you to read this piece (@SociologyTheory) for a more in-depth history of my Twitter Assignments.

2. The second assignment that I have used rather than a research paper was a self-selected group project, where students negotiated their final projects. This project was really fun as an instructor! Essentially, I sectioned off a quarter of the overall course grade for a “final project.” I give very little information on what this would look like, simply suggesting “Trust me, I will explain later.” Eventually, students self-select into groups and negotiate final project requirements with me, as the instructor.

First five weeks of Introduction to Sociology

Since I have written in detail about my use of social media in the classroom, I would like to use the rest of this piece to discuss my student-negotiated projects. During the first five weeks of class I cover many of the sociological fundamentals. I introduce students to the sociological imagination, a brief history of the field, some theoretical foundations, a simple understanding of the philosophy of science, and background into how sociology can be applied in organizations.

An Engaged Intro to Sociology Midterm

After the first five weeks of class students turn in a “midterm” with 4-5 assignments designed to evaluate their understandings of the basics. One of their questions on this midterm asks students to write a blog about who they are and what interests them most in sociology, thus far. I ask students to post these blogs in a discussion board on Blackboard and require them to respond to a certain number of their classmates' posts.

On the midterm instructions, I suggest to students that it will be important to have read their classmates’ posts because they would help us to self-select groups during our “networking event.”  The day after the midterm was due, I hosted a class networking day. On this day, I began with asking students to privately reflect in writing to a few questions. I refer to this step as self-audit and assure these answers will be confidential. Some questions that I have used in the past include:

  • What role would you like to play in society? I ask students not to use the name of a profession.

  • How can this class help you achieve your goals?

  • What elements of sociology have seemed most applicable to your goals?

The point being, I try to get students thinking about course content, but also thinking about how that content might apply to their own career and life paths. After the reflective self-audit, I ask students to network with one another with two goals in mind. First, find commonality amongst their peers and second that at the end of the networking they would self-select into project groups. At this point, students still know very little about their projects and I run the networking similar to professional speed dating where I ask them to “meet new people,” every few minutes or so.

Group Selection and Professional Development Planning for Sociology Projects

Once I feel as if students mingled enough, I ask them to self-select groups based on common interests. I list several “sociological terms” on the board as a reminder. I listed theoretical, methodological, and substantive terms. I ask students to do two things before leaving class, first leave me with a hand written document including all group members names and a brief piece of writing detailing the common sociological elements that the group formed around, and second discuss how the group will best communicate throughout the semester. This ends the first day of our introduction to final projects.

I took the group notes, found similarities, and created three project. I also suggested to students the project I felt best suited their interests, but that as a group, they could select any project type. Here are descriptions of the three projects types that I negotiated with students:

  • A topical academic research paper, or proposal. Contrary to what some may believe, if given the opportunity, many students select to write a research paper. I allow students to either write a research paper using pre-existing data (Ex. Stats or discourse), or a proposal of how they would collect data. Regardless, it gives me the opportunity to teach students interested in research how to write and present research findings. If you encourage students to include a presentation at the end of the semester, it will allow those students to teach that process back to the rest of the class.

  • An applied research paper. The applied research paper is the best example of an alternate to the academic research paper. For students selecting this assignment, I offer them materials defining what a “social problem” is in sociology and for their assignment ask them to define a social problem, identify a problem in society, find an organization (organization type) and find solutions to suggest to the organization that take a sociological perspective. Presentations for these projects ignited a ton of productive class discussion.

  • Project in Public Sociology. The public sociology website project was a lot of fun. For these projects, students were tasked with finding a “sociological”  topic of interest and write a series of blogs addressing the topic from variety of sociological perspectives. For example, one group chose to create a website dedicated to the sociological study of education. Their website consisted of small chunks of writing discussing race in education, gender in education, and educational policies amongst others. Another website analyzed the sociological perspective on gender and included blogs about intersectionality, gender in sport, and masculinity.

Initial Benefits of Non-Academic Research Projects

  • The first and most obvious benefit has been the quality of final projects that I receive at the end of the semester. I have had groups who seem clueless until the final weeks, and I have had groups where they are looking for feedback on rough drafts midway through the semester. I use a couple of strategies to help with this.

  • First, I arrange 4-5 class periods per semester designated for “group meetings.” Early in the semester I use these meetings to provide groups with “action items.” These may include readings, summaries, annotated bibliographies, or whatever steps the group needs to take. Soon enough students find their way and begin delegating their own action items. This form of action-oriented guidance really helped motivate students.

Solutions to Potential Problems faced in Student-Centered Sociology Projects

  • Self-selecting groups poses a risk. I have implemented a couple of ways of mitigating this risk. First, I do not require a particular group number, although I suggest 4-6, and I include an explanation that if the group is too small it will be a heavy workload and if the group is too big there is greater risk of freeloaders. Second, I include a peer-review element to their final grade. This helps me identify and evaluate students independently. Third, I allow junior or senior seniors the opportunity to conduct an individual project. They have to provide me with a topic and a reason, and I hold them to the same standards of the group projects.

  • Standardizing project grading rubrics is a challenge. I gave each group an individual rubric depending on the type of project they chose with some level of standardization. First, all of the project types were held to the same rubric. For instance, all applied projects had the same requirements. Second, I gave all of the groups a word-count requirement around the same of a 12-15 page paper.

  • Another struggle is class-time. There are ways to get more time for face-to-face group meetings such as out-of-class conferences with the instructor or required out-of-class group meetings. Either of these could work, but for 100 or 200 level classes, that level of commitment is not necessary from students. So, I add 4-5 work days through out the semester, which creates an additional concern.

  • Not covering all topics in depth. One solution I use is to incorporate elements of lesser-discussed topics in assignments or evaluations. For instance, rather than teach an entire section on the “sociology of family,” I inform students that this exists, point them to the textbook chapter on the topic and simply include a question on their midterm asking them to reflect on theoretical perspectives of marriage. They figure it out, especially since I continuously teach them how to find information on their own, rather than rely on me. As an instructor, I am an active agent in the learning process, not an audio version of the textbook.


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