The Death of the Term Paper?

…the old-fashioned term paper — composed by sweating students on a
typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books — has no useful
heir in the digital age. It’s time for schools and educators to
recognize the truth: The term paper is dead.

This is from Jason Johnson’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Sunday. I think it speaks volumes about what we call school reform and the entrenched systems that are going to change.

The article is titled “Cut and Paste is a Skill, Too.” Right there, he captivates. In working with both teachers and students, this might be the number one concern about switching to Web 2.0 applications: how do I stop them from plagiarizing? Johnson says we might not be able to.

Internet plagiarism is growing at a rapid pace, according to recent
studies and the anecdotal evidence I hear from my former colleagues in
education — and there’s no end in sight.

Within the article, Johnson makes reference to the fact that not only are students turning to term paper services like StudentOfFortune for term papers, but for homework answers as well, with that transaction cost being $1 per answer. The culture of sharing through social networking is being taken to a new level by students of today. Should educators be discouraging this transfer? Or should we reevaluate what we are asking students to do?

The larger question here is what does this tell us about today’s student? If it’s possible to tear ourselves away from our own school experience and focus on the skills necessary for success in today’s world, what does this tell us about the relevance of things like term papers? I will not go as far as Johnson, yet, to call for the death of the term paper; however, this is a topic worth looking into when we begin to redesign our schools. It was even more telling to look at the comments left by readers of the article. One commenter noted that to copy and paste one source makes you a plagiarizer, but to copy and paste many sources makes you a scholar.

Nevertheless, the educational system needs to acknowledge what the
paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular
skills — the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of
others — and not students’ knowledge, originality and overall ability.

Does the ability to synthesize information from disparate sources into one continuous form have merit in today’s world? Absolutely. However, the assessment aspect of the “term paper” should never be ignored. What are our new options? I foresee a shift from the term paper that stresses large-scale research, utilizing various sources, visualizing data in multiple ways, and finishing with a demonstration of tangible learning by either presentation in an oral way, or through a rich, multi-media design. Johnson makes a key point about the relationship between how most schools assess term papers that “cut and paste” and about what they may show regarding student learning:

Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a
valuable business skill. Unfortunately, most schools fail to recognize
that any skills have been used at all, and an entire paper can be
discarded because of a few lines repeated from another source without
quotation marks.

Services like TurnItIn.com, and Google searches with large chunks of student writing feel more like band-aids at the moment, and it’s only a matter of time before students figure out how to get around those measures (if they haven’t already). Instead of being reactionary, let’s jump ahead of the curve and re-design our idea of the research paper to incorporate this amalgamation that Johnson talks about.

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