College Research: Do They or Don’t They?

A colleague recently asked me for my thoughts. One of her teachers approached her, wanting to cancel a long-standing research project because ‘college students aren’t writing research papers anymore’. My colleague was a bit dumbfounded. This was an involved and engaged teacher with whom she had a strong working relationship. When we are presented with a proposition so far outside our realm of experience our first thought is often confusion. Was there a memo that I didn’t receive, cancelling all college research? Is this a trend that I somehow missed?

I set out to collect information, and didn’t have to look far.  My daughter Gillian has just returned to her alma mater, University of California, Irvine, for a post-bac program in Psychology, working toward a higher degree in that field. Who better to ask about ‘college research’ than a current college student? I asked her: is it true that ”college students aren’t writing research papers anymore”?  I’m going to let Gilly take it from here (her response follows).

“The very first class I took at UCI was a year-long course, which was an intensive lower division course that required a year commitment when every other freshman course only required one quarter commitment, making it arguably the hardest college course for a freshman to take in terms of commitment and follow-through. In this course that I was required not only to write a research paper using our campus on and offline resources, but was also responsible for coming up with a valid, researchable, and in depth research question for myself- something this 18 year old right out of high school found very difficult to do and would probably have been near impossible without the preparation I got in earlier years. I know that was quite some time ago [2007], so I looked up the course on the UCI website ( and, while each quarter is not completely updated yet, it still looks as though there is a heavy emphasis on writing and research. Here is the link to take a look at the course:

“This link is for the fall quarter, but as you can see when you there, you can take a look at what the next quarters will look like. This was one of the most influential courses in my college career, which I would not have done well in if I hadn’t learned how to research or write at a high level from my high school education (or had a smarty pants librarian for a mom:)).

“That was for the humanities side. I am currently enrolled in a class called Social Ecology 10- Research Design, where my entire quarter’s grade is dependent upon creating and successfully carrying out a research project with an experiment, data collection, finding/using research in our campus on and offline resources, citation, and compilation using APA format to report my scientific findings. Again, even though APA formatting is completely new for me, If I didn’t have a humanities background or if I didn’t have the experience in high school (or home) with MLA format, I would be totally lost in APA formatting and wouldn’t even have the skills to begin to learn how to conduct my research project.

“I’ve attached my SE10 syllabus and the requirements for my research project, in case this is helpful for what college classes look like in present day. Sorry for the lengthy email, but not emphasizing research education is a huge mistake and I owe much of my college success, past and present, to knowing how to research and write well. It is certainly a skill I value.” [emphasis added]

SE10 Syllabus 2014 SE10 Research Project

Thank you, Gilly, for your passionate eloquence!

To be sure I had a well-rounded view of the issue, I checked with another colleague’s brother-in-law who is a professor at Oberlin College. His response parallels Gilly’s:

We still definitely assign papers at Oberlin in Humanities/S. Sciences and my impression is that this is true at all top-tier places, though maybe a little less so in lower division classes at big state schools.” [emphasis added]

Perhaps this should be part of our response to teachers who are sure that “college students aren’t writing research papers anymore.”  This lack of emphasis on research could be more likely to be found at “lower division classes at big state schools”, but apparently not at “top-tier places”.  We can at least ask –in a non-defensive and engaging way 🙂 — where their information about college research is coming from.

Another question I have is why are we hearing about so many unfounded ‘certainties’ lately: ‘No one does research in college anymore’, ‘Kids don’t read anymore’, ‘No one uses books anymore’. I have my own theories, having to do with alternate uses for space and the desire for square footage, but we’ll leave that for another post.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

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