We’re entering research season at my high school. Every student in every one of our required classes will write a research essay in the next couple of months. With various degrees of independence, each student will choose a topic, find and read relevant and reliable sources, formulate and defend a thesis, and produce an essay that conforms to scholarly standards for communication and citation. And then we’ll all collapse in a heap.

Writing an independent research essay is the hardest thing you can ask a History student to do. That’s why we require it. The research essay is the common assessment that matters most. If our students can do that successfully, they’re ready to ask and answer questions on their own. They’ll know what it takes to pull off a project that requires stamina and planning. They know how to harness their curiosity and test their presumptions. They’ll be ready to participate in grown-up conversations as philosopher-citizens.

The research essay is hard for teachers, too. Liking writing the essay for students, preparation is everything. Students need plenty of time to practice all the skills involved. That requires teachers to plan well. If students are just learning to find good sources when they start the essay, it’ll be hard to get them much beyond that. The same for citation, note taking, paragraph writing, and so on. The research essay requires students to use a whole range of skills we need to be teaching them continually and repeatedly. If you want your students to get beyond the mechanical and actually think about what they’re writing, you’ll need a scope and sequence for skill development.

“Story First” Is For Research Papers, Too!

About a decade ago, a team of teachers working on the research scope and sequence for my department made an important discovery in the laboratory of their own classes. Students who wrote research reports first, before attempting an argumentative research essay, did better than students who plunged right in and began arguing a thesis. The fact is, many of the latter ended up writing reports anyway, inadvertently. At worst, students who skipped the report stage got paralyzed by the weight of decision. They just couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to prove.

The Number One problem in student research is that the student-author doesn’t know their topic well enough to write about it. When professionals do research, they read and learn a ton before they start to write. They become experts in the topic before they argue about it. Our students need to do the same, on a smaller scale. Requiring students to do a topic report as a preliminary step in the research enterprise makes it much more likely that they’ll develop the expertise they need to ask and answer a reasonable, interesting question.

If you’ve been following our blog or have attended our workshops, this should sound familiar: Story first! We’ve found that what works for students writing research essays is the same advice that works for teachers planning units, and for good reason. You can’t identify the interesting, organic questions until you know something about a topic. The best test of knowledge we’ve discovered is the ability to tell a coherent and convincing story about that topic. The research topic report is that story. It’s an essential step in the research process.

Oral Storytelling Helps Clarify Things

In my last blog post, I recommended that students tell stories orally. That’s a particularly good idea for the research topic report. Some of the teachers in my department have designed a small-group activity in which students narrate to peers, usually with the help of images in a slide presentation. The student auditors then give the narrator feedback about what’s confusing, puzzling, or interesting to them. Together, they generate a list of questions. One of those questions will typically become the Thesis Question, the one whose answer will frame the argument of the essay.

A successful research essay — no surprise — will reflect the thinking process that generated it. The introduction will frame the puzzle or question that the essay will resolve or answer. That requires a short version of the story from which the puzzle or question derives. Story first! The thesis, which resolves the puzzle or answers the question, will typically be an answer to either Question Two or Question Three — an interpretation or an explanation, respectively. Younger, less experienced students have much greater success interpreting than explaining. I now direct such students to Question Two — that is, to defend a claim about what some interesting person or group in their story was thinking. Question Three (Why then and there?) typically requires more knowledge and keener analytical chops than a beginner can muster. Either way, the thesis for the research essay will, in the vast majority of cases, be an answer to one of these two questions. Then, once the argument is made, the student-scholar can conclude by telling us what we learn from these findings — Question Four.

Every year, at the beginning of June, we host an awards ceremony for the winners of our departmental prizes for excellence in writing historical research essays. We select a winner at each grade and level. The winning students bring their parents and siblings and sometimes grandparents. Their teachers give testimonials, and we all celebrate the achievement of our student-scholars — our future philosopher-citizens — with sparkling cider and cookies. It’s my favorite event of the year. Right after that — that’s when we collapse into a heap.