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The Student Newspaper of Hopkins School

    • Ingrid Slattery ’23, recipient of the 2021 Julia B. Thomas History Prize.

    • Maisie Bilston ’22, recipient of the 2020 Julia B. Thomas History Prize.

Hopkins Teachers and Students Offer Research Paper Advice

Zoe Sommer ’23 Features Editor
Following the end of Thanksgiving break, most Hopkins students have started their dive into the History Department’s research paper process.
For many younger students, the thought of writing an six to nine page paper from scratch, with months of research and outlining, is a daunting and unfamiliar task. Even older students, with a paper or two under their belts, dread the prospect of adding forty notecards to Noodletools and finding yet another primary source. To help put these fears to rest, The Razor reached out to Atlantic Communities I and II teachers and past winners of the Julia B. Thomas History Prize for advice on the research paper writing process.

The first stage of the research paper process is finding a topic. For many students, picking just one topic to research and write about for months on end is a daunting task. History teacher Megan Maxwell often sees students make the mistake of, “picking a topic because they think the teacher will like it.” She elaborated “it’s your paper, not your teacher’s or your parents’. You have to find the topic interesting enough to invite it into your life for the next four to five months.” Maisie Bilston ’22, recipient of the 2020 Julia B. Thomas History Prize for the best research paper, also spoke to the necessity of finding a good topic. She shared that she “get[s] overwhelmed easily, so ... I think of topics that excite me. That way, I know that I genuinely am excited by whatever I’m writing about, and so it feels less daunting.”

For students who are most concerned with grades or their teachers’ thoughts on their paper, interest in a topic makes the research-paper experience more enjoyable for them and for their teachers. Maxwell recounted an anecdote about a former student who “wrote a paper on the Texas Rangers [the law enforcement personnel].” Even though “[the student’s] rough draft... lacked a thesis, he was able to manage a good thesis out of it,” and despite its rocky origins, “it was one of [her] favorites because he so loved his topic, and that shone through in every paragraph.” Bilston echoed Maxwell, stating that, when writing her paper on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, her interest in her topic helped make the paper great: “I had loved Pre-Raphaelite art for years before writing my term paper - and so I think that it was obvious, reading my paper, that I really cared about all the stuff I was writing.”

The question remains, however: how does one find a topic that is engaging enough to work on for months, yet narrow enough to yield a specific thesis? Ingrid Slattery ’23, who won the 2021 Thomas Prize, shared her process for brainstorming a topic: “I like to start with a blank sheet of printer paper and just start writing down all my ideas....Write down what you like, maybe something you remember from class, or an event that occurred in the AC1 time period, or even a favorite dish, figure, song, place, artwork... Some won’t quite work, but at least one will, and then you’ll be on your way.” History teacher Zoe Resch advised that students “give [themselves] time to explore (read around) [their] topic[s], especially at the beginning of the project.” Resch added, “I always say that in the early stages of exploration, students SHOULD go down every rabbit hole that inspires their curiosity.”

After choosing a topic, students generate a research question. From that question, students further research their topic and come up with a thesis statement. During this part of the process, students are also error-prone. According to Resch, one of the most common mistakes she sees in students’ papers is that they “want to have a thesis before they’ve explored a topic enough to be able to develop any ideas about it.” Maxwell said, “Too many students begin the process with a preconceived thesis. Go in with a question, not an answer. Go where the research takes you. You’ll quickly find a hook on which to hang your research.” A good research question, however, can be hard to create. Slattery discussed her ninth-grade paper, in which she tried to tackle a topic that “was way too broad.” She admitted, “I was afraid to pick a research question that was narrow in case I couldn’t get enough notes on it. [The] next year I worked to narrow my question even though I had the same doubts. I ended up having to narrow it further as I researched.” Slattery said, “I’m learning that narrow topics give you time to get into the complexities, find convincing primaries, and write a completely original piece.”

To reach a thesis, students need to thoroughly research their topic, and get a variety of evidence from numerous sources. Finding primary sources, in particular, can be difficult. History teacher Sarah Belbita suggested visiting “the fabulous librarians in Calarco.” “Definitely ask your librarian for recommendations,” Belbita said. “Your teacher is, of course, your main point of contact,” Belbita continued. “Seek that person out and ask questions: we are here to answer them and provide support along the way. Additionally, there are research paper help sessions held on Tuesdays and Thursdays during G and H blocks... outside of T121 and the South Atrium of Thompson.” Maxwell added that “local public libraries... [and] real, physical books” are other beneficial sources for students. According to Slattery, “the Hathi Trust database” is another great resource “for primary sources.” “They have tons of material and their searching program works very well,” Slattery added, “definitely start with the databases in your libguide, but if you’ve exhausted those, Hathi is worth a look. Google Books is also a good place to find secondaries if you have a niche topic that the library doesn’t cover.” Slattery also mentioned that having “a person who you can talk with about your research... helped me synthesize my arguments and find holes in my research.”

Another important part of gathering evidence and research is citing a variety of sources. According to Maxwell, one mistake that many students make on their first research paper is “following the outline of one source.” Maxwell elaborated: “a page with footnotes from only one source is often a red flag that the student’s argument isn’t completely their own. Most don’t intend to plagiarize ... but plagiarism isn’t just taking someone else’s words.” Resch added that “the range of sources a student used” in their paper is one of the main things she looks at when grading research papers.

As research papers constitute a large grade for a history class, teachers’ grading processes tend to be at the forefront of many students’ minds. To give students some insight into teachers’ grading process, The Razor asked teachers about the main things they look for when grading research papers. According to Maxwell, “consistency and depth of argument, balance of sources, [and] flow of writing” are the three major areas of consideration. She also advised students to “read [their] teacher’s rubric.” Belbita said, “both the paper itself and the process are graded, so the entire picture is taken into consideration.” Belbita also elaborated on the specificities of her grading: “The questions I ask myself while grading a paper include: Is there a SNAPPy thesis? Are there topic sentences that connect to the thesis? Does the presented evidence support each section of the paper and thereby prove the argument in the thesis? Was information cited effectively? Of course, things like spelling and sentence structure come into play, but the main emphasis is on making and proving an argument using (mostly) primary sources as evidence.” Resch emphasized the importance of a strong thesis, stating that when grading, she evaluates “the thesis as a clear and evaluative statement that summarizes what the supporting points/evidence demonstrate.”

Finally, The Razor asked teachers what specific strategies students could incorporate to improve the final product. Belbita stressed the importance of time management, as she finds that students often “[struggle] with time management and how to incorporate [their] research paper... into their overall workload.” To combat this issue, Belbita advised students to “create a work plan ... each week. Clearly mark in your planner (yep, use a planner, please!) the times you will dedicate to research. Having a plan can offset distress and reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.” Belbita also stressed the importance of seeking assistance: “Ask for support and help along the way: don’t wait until you get into a jam to seek assistance. A simple “Can we check-in for a few minutes about my research paper process?” is a great question to start a helpful conversation.” Maxwell spoke to mistakes in formatting and proofreading: “Don’t assume that computers know all.” Maxwell elaborated, “Noodletools is an amazing tool, but it’s not infallible with formatting. And active editing, rather than running spell/grammar check, is essential to finding errors of style and fact.”

Writing a research paper, no matter how well you structure your time or how many sources you use, can add an extra source of stress to students’ lives. Thus, it’s important to put the assignment into perspective. As Belbita concluded, “you’re researching a topic and writing a paper, not altering the trajectory of your life’s journey: perspective is important! Do what you can to the best of your ability, identify where you can improve and move forward empowered, knowing you are bolstering skills you’ll rely on for life. Remember what Dory sang to Nemo: ‘Just keep swimming.’”
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