Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Research Paper

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, April 1, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fifth Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, the final event in the program for this academic year. Bill Leslie, Professor, History of Science, and Adam Sheingate, Associate Professor and Chair, Political Science, presented on Alternatives to the Research Paper.

Bill Leslie, who has been at Hopkins since 1981, teaches a number of different undergraduate and graduate courses. He has long been a proponent of finding alternate methods for students to present the results of their research. He pointed out that the key components for traditional humanities courses are to have students working with primary and secondary resources, analyzing their findings, thinking critically about the meaning, and using succinct, precise writing to convey the results. While a research paper is a long-established format for output of this work, there are many other ways for students to learn and practice these key skills.

Leslie mentioned specifically his course taught some years ago, “Monuments and Memory,” a study of the great monuments of Western culture, where as a final assignment, students created either real or virtual models of an imagined monument. Another example cited was “Science on Display,” a history of popular science examined through the study of exhibits in museums, botanical gardens, and science centers. In this course students created their own museums on a subject of interest to them and designed an exhibit that would be found in that museum.  The course used a web-based application developed by the Center for Educational Resources (CER) called the Interactive Map Tool, where the students could easily create web pages to showcase their museum exhibits. A new version of the Map Tool, called Reveal, has been used by Leslie more recently for student assignments in the course “Science and the City,” co-taught with Robert Kargon and Joris Mercelis, both faculty in the History of Science department.

Screenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” Home Page with Google Map.Currently Leslie is writing a history of Johns Hopkins University, a subject that brings together many of his scholarly interests. As part of this work he has offered a series of courses for undergraduates that draw from his research. For one course he had students write new or edit existing Wikipedia entries pertaining to Johns Hopkins [see: Wikipedia editing tutorial for a guide]. Students learned about responsible research, editing, and engaged in dialog with other Wikipedia editors. The history function of the wiki allowed Leslie to see exactly what changes the students had made and when. This proved to be of value in grading the students on their work.

ThisScreenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” showing page on the Abel Wolman House. spring Leslie is offering a course called “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.” With a small grant from the CER, Leslie is looking to teach narrative and visualization skills to his students; specifically, students are learning to build a narrative using images depicting the spaces that make up Johns Hopkins: laboratories, classrooms, campus spaces. The students started by learning how to read a single image and moved towards selecting a sequence of images to form a story. He has been working with CER staff to have the students combine Google Sites, Maps, and Drive to display the students’ research projects.

Sheingate assigns his students (class of 20) to groups of four. The students are introduced to the concepts of field observation, interviewing skills, and data collection in the classroom. He works with students to identify an appropriate place in Baltimore City for investigation of the food system—an urban farm, local grocery, soup kitchen, or farmers’ market. Student groups are expected to make several visits to their chosen site. Groups use Google Docs to facilitate their data collection, which also allows Sheingate to monitor their progress.

Sheingate uses Blackboard’s discussion board and has the students write reactions to the weekly reading assignments; this record becomes a collective resource for the class to draw on. Further, he breaks down the final project, which includes a group oral presentation and an individual paper, into assignments that are spread out through the semester. This prevents procrastination. He provides very specific guidelines for the oral presentations including elements that must be included such as data visualizations.

As the final component, each student submits an individual paper written in response to a precise prompt. The paper is based on the group’s work, but relies on the individual’s experience. This makes it less likely that students will be able to cheat or plagiarize. Sheingate provides students with guidelines for what is expected.

He also teaches a larger lecture course on rotation. He has the students in that course complete several small written assignments during the semester based on analyzing primary documents.

Sheingate pointed out that students coming into university today may not be as well-prepared as previously to write a long-form research paper. There are fewer college-level courses where they may be required to write. It’s important to think about how to teach our students to write in ways that will be helpful to their future careers. There are different kinds of writing that can be useful for students to practice, including op-ed pieces, briefs, and scholarly articles. Bringing in a writing coach/teacher to help students in a writing-intensive class might be useful. He emphasized the value of giving students a rubric for a writing assignment that can be returned to them with the graded work. This can act as a diagnostic tool if used early in the semester.

When a research paper is assigned, it is helpful to scaffold assignments to be due over the course of the semester—breaking them down into components (working with primary and secondary sources, preparing an annotated bibliography, writing an abstract) will help students focus on developing specific writing skills with feedback at each step.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, faculty suggested blogging, creating posters, and oral presentations as research paper alternatives they have used successfully.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images are screenshots of Bill Leslie’s students’ work in the course “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.”