Once the staple of academic assessment, the term paper is now being challenged as an ineffective and harmful to student progress. Does the term paper still an important tool in higher education? This topic was recently brought up in a the New York Times by a Duke professor that argued that the term paper should be replaces by the blog as a teaching and assessment tool. It was also highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as being potentially anachronistic. Over the next several weeks, Teaching Thursday will be exploring a wide variety of perspectives on term papers and blogs.
Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota
Since the 19th century, the term paper has stood as a central component of the professional training of historians. Inseparable from the seminar system developed by the first professional historians in Germany, the term paper represented the standard delivery method for new historical knowledge. Grounded in primary sources and situated in relation to secondary literature, the term paper encapsulated the professional standard of the discipline and formed a first step in training students to produce theses, dissertation, scholarly articles, and eventually monographs. Along the way, historians have argued that term papers introduce students to a number of transferable skills from clear writing and organization to research skills, precise argumentation, and respect for the work of others.
The digital revolution and the changing landscape of higher education have begun to challenge the value of traditional terms papers with their roots in professional, vocational training of historians. In my classes, I am shifting to shorter (<1500 word), more structured and focused assignments that have less room for creativity, but also owe less to traditional models for professional training. I suspect that these shorter more focused assignments have more obvious applications in a wide range of setting (such as web writing, memo writing, and other professional, non-academic areas of work). I am also starting to include more “public” types of writing into my class with students having to prepare discussion posts – for example – that can be read by their fellow students. This not only adds a level of peer pressure to the assignment, but also creates an immediate and easily recognizable audience for their work. Finally, I am beginning to toy with more collective writing assignments that would leverage resources like the Scale-up classroom (where students work in teams linked digitally) or using Wiki type interfaces that allow students to produce synthetic works but still get recognized for their contributions to the final product. These kinds of corporate, public, and focused writing assignments mark a serious departure from the traditional practices of term paper writing and the goals of those assignment.
Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota
One of the subtle arguments forwarded in the debate over the future of term papers focuses on the disconnect between the term paper as a formal assessment tool and long-term, job-related skills. Several writers have argued that the term paper does not correspond with the main skills that are applicable to the modern workforce or modern citizen engagement. These authors tend to highlight alternative assignment and assessment tools that have a more direct relationship to non-academic activities. Coupled with this criticism is a corresponding argument that the term paper is an assignment with no clear audience and assignments like blogs avoid this by having a more immediate and intimate audience.
I think that this set of criticisms is a red herring argument that misses the role of the term paper in two ways. First, in many ways all of the assignments and assessment tools used in higher education have limited connections to non-academic life skills. Most formal examinations and quizzes have limited connections to the non-academic life; on the job or at home, it is rare that we will every encounter a fill in the bubble form or have to do a term-matching exercise, under time constraints, for our supervisors. Students are unlikely to be in moderated large or small group discussions on the theoretical concepts in an academic article. Even the blog is not directly applicable to non-academic life, since instructors put significant constraints on topic, structure, tone, and style. Personal blogs and interest-based blogs, in non-academic life, do not have the constraints. Equally important, the issues that authors of personal blogs and interest-based blogs have to deal with (like flaming, trolling, anonymous posting, etc) tend to be structured out of academic blog postings. I am certain that many people will be able to find examples from non-academic life that provide counter-examples to my individual points above, but it is my contention that in general there is a disconnect between most academic assignments and non-academic life. The term paper seems different in some ways, but this seems to be more of a problem for all assignments rather than just the term paper.
The second way that I think that this argument is a red herring is that it underestimates the relationship between the term paper and non-academic life. It is a mistake to think that the term paper is an audience-less form of writing. The term paper has a specific audience, even though it is an audience of one: the instructor. However, much of the writing that is done in non-academic life is written for an audience of one. Reports, performance reviews, letters, policy prescriptions, white papers, policy memos, etc. all have a very narrow audience size (often only an audience of one). The fact that different disciplines and different instructors have different expectations and requirements for term papers strengthens the skills taught by term papers. These differences demand that students learn how to address an audience of one and how to be adaptable in their presentation of ideas. However, these varied term papers help students develop: the skills of research, a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time, the ability to use evidence to make claims, and the ability to reach reasoned conclusions based on this research. The term paper probably should not be the only assessment tool we use, but that does not mean that the term paper is a relic of the past that should be abandoned as outdated.