A Research Project for First Year Students

One of the things I haven’t done particularly well over the last two years in my First Year Seminar on globalization is the research paper assignment. My first attempt was Version 1: The Expert Study, essentially a research paper by a different name. Some papers turned out quite well, but many did not. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to see what little guidance I provided, but here it is. To be fair, we also spent a fair amount of class time discussing what should go into the assignment. I wrote about this in a previous post (which despite the title is mostly about the research paper).

Taking these thoughts into account, my second attempt was Version 2: The Collaborative Research Project. In this version, I provided a lot more structure, and asked students to work in groups instead of as individuals. Additionally, the product was a series of class presentations, where I hoped students would learn from what the other groups had done. Unfortunately, the outcome was similar to Version 1: Some were good, but many really weren’t. The sharing of work, which occurred both within and across groups (via presentations) was an improvement over Version 1, but there was little or nothing in the way of tangible products. For example, while one group provided a decent powerpoint presentation which we ended up posting on the course website, another group gave an extemporaneous talk with essentially no notes. I wonder what the rest of the class took away from that?

In both cases I underestimated first year students’ abilities to give me what I wanted. The first time, I found that most really didn’t understand how to write an analytical, thesis-driven research paper. The second time, I discovered that first years don’t really know how to work effectively in collaboration with peers.

Perhaps a better way to look at this is that I didn’t put enough thought into the assignments. I knew what a university-level research project was (it was the part of a first year seminar that I (thought I) understood the best) so I didn’t think to spell it out in detail for my students. Or rather, the students that I usually teach know what university-level research is. But most first year students aren’t at that point yet. Clearly this misconception was my fault, and I’d like to rectify that next year.

This post is going to sketch out my ideas for Version 3, drawing on what I learned from the FSEM Workshop this summer. I like the idea of an “expert study” where students develop expertise and become the class expert on a topic. The key is to design an assignment where first years can genuinely do that.

What I have in mind is a very structured research project – one organized around a large number of stages, more than I typically ask for in my upper courses. The idea is to take the normal stages in a research project and break them into smaller steps. The focus of the project will be for each student to explore and evaluate the effects of globalization on a specific foreign country, and to become the class expert on that country. The students will choose the countries they study, but I’d like to have a sampling of countries from different parts of the world, different stages of economic development, etc.

Students will begin by investigating the history, geography, political system, economy, culture and language of the country in very factual ways, along the lines of what’s provided by the CIA World Factbook).

Students will then move into more analytical issues, applying what we are doing broadly in the class (the effects of globalization on employment, income and other aspects of the economy, politics, culture) to their specific country.

The project will culminate in a research paper addressing the question: Is globalization (on balance) good or bad for your country? The paper will essentially cumulate the previous project assignments.

Through sharing of work, and peer review along the way, students will hopefully learn more about the broader issues we explore in class in the context of their country.

One concern I have is that all that structure could trivialize the assignment. Or that it will inhibit the quality of the projects of the best students, in order to bring up the bottom, like the Virginia Standards of Learning/No Child Left Behind does. But after overshooting the last two years, I’m willing to risk undershooting this time.

Thoughts? Do you think this will work? What do you see as potential problems?

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3 Responses to A Research Project for First Year Students

  1. Sue says:

    Thanks for sharing both your past experience here and the proposed plan – this is very helpful, esp. as I’m in the process of contemplating similar options re: the FSEM I’m designing for next spring.

    I don’t think that structure trivializes an assignment, esp. if it’s threaded as one goes w/ broader themes re: analysis, as well as intriguing sources and readings. Having more flexible spaces (e.g. blogs as well as other kinds of classroom discussion sessions) to experiment and construct the broader vision will complement that nicely. A constructive dialectic… =)

    Building a dialogue and awareness regarding the fact that one engaged in a training in a competency (research and its related, diverse skills and fluencies) as well as an expertise (re: the country that they study as well as the fundamental issues of globalization) also helps to keep the smaller and at times more frustrating tasks of research in a useful perspective…

    I’m curious to hear, as I design my own FSEM syllabus and contemplate different options re: a research assignment, just how much and/or what kind of group collaboration you’ll be retaining in this third edition of the assignment.

    Cheers. And thanks again for the kicking off a conversation with this post…

  2. Shannon says:

    I’m really digging this idea.
    It makes them draw their own conclusions about the countries, in effect make them real experts. Experts know about a topic (in this case a specific country) and then are able to analyze the effects of something on it (in this case globalization).
    Students won’t be able to find these answers in a book or on the internet very easily because they will have to know their country and see how globalization is affecting theirs specifically.

  3. Robert S Rycroft says:

    I also don’t think breaking the assignment into stages trivializes the project. That is the way I do it in Economic Forecasting. Students write their theory section and get feedback. They write their empirical section and get feedback. Then they put together the finished product. I am satisfied it maximizes the quality of the paper they write, and it does not reduce the amount of effort they need to put forth. Two additional things. It makes grading the final paper easier because a lot of the bonehead errors have been eliminated. Also, it forces them to work steadily on the paper and not wait until the last minute. They need to see that is the better way to do it.

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