the undergraduate term paper

Prepare your students for end-of-semester research papers

The Comp Instructor's Dilemma 

The ubiquity of the term paper is the rationale for mandatory freshman composition. If students did not write end-of-semester papers, freshman composition would not exist. Training comp students to master this genre should be every comp instructor's top priority but the term paper is not a monolithic genre.


There are conflicting APA and MLA formats and different disciplines have different expectations. However, English graduate students and adjuncts do the bulk of the teaching and they are usually not familiar with conventions outside literature scholarship. Its not easy for comp instructors and they should not be expected to do it all. 


I think the solution to the comp instructor's dilemma is to focus on basic principles of academic writing: how to engage with opponents and how to argue from evidence, not values. My Comp 101 class takes that approach and this assignment is from that course. 

the assignment

After completing an annotated bibliography and bibliographic essay students should be familiar enough with their topic to have their own point of view. As they read journal articles they should have found themselves accepting the conclusions of some researchers while rejecting the conclusions of others because those conclusions were unfounded or discredited by other research.


This assignment asks students to explain their point of view and persuade readers to agree with their conclusions in a 1000 to 1200-word essay. 


Students craft a thesis statement that provides an answer to their original research question and then make an argument supporting that claim using empirical evidence and logic. This essay is a type of Aristotelian Essay, a cornerstone of science and scholarship in western civilization.


The essay should:

  • follow the expectations of academic discourse, not public discourse
  • be persuasive, not expository; argumentative, not informative
  • argue with evidence and logic, not belief and values
  • be approximately 1000-1200 words long, not including the Works Cited page
  • reference at least 6 peer-reviewed sources from the past ten years
  • contain an introductory paragraph that hooks the reader, briefly introduces the topic and provides background information, and ends with an argumentative thesis
  • support all claims with evidence
  • explain counterarguments and refute them
  • follow a “they say/I say” pattern in the body of the essay
  • use the third-person point of view
  • employ segues and transitions that move the reader through the paper
  • end the essay by restating the thesis in light of the evidence presented
  • present a conclusion that places the argument in a larger context and offers readers something for further thought
  • follow MLA formatting and citing guidelines
  • contain a Works Cited page.

Common Problems with This Assignment

Professors across campus complain to the English Department, "My students can't write," sometimes going as far as, "They can't even put a sentence together!" but at the university where I taught, my students could all compose perfectly clear prose. At the start of each semester I assigned an autobiographical essay and students always wrote well when the subject was themselves  they put sentences together with ease. The problem came when they had to make an argument. 

1:  Students don't make an argument

After years of writing formulaic expository essays for high school standardized tests, my students thought persuasion was simply a matter of having the correct information and explaining it clearly. They had a "just the facts" attitude to argumentation and did not perceive a difference between expository and persuasive writing. Every time I assigned a persuasive essay at least some students turned in expository essays that explained a viewpoint without ever engaging with opponents. Old habits were hard to break.


I like They Say/I Say  as a textbook because it is the most straightforward explanation of academic writing out there. It's all in the title: you can't have an argument in a vacuum. You have to engage with other people. 


2:  Student inject their personal values into an academic argument

If you can convince students that their essay exists as part of a larger ongoing conversation and must engage with opponents, you have already done a tremendous job. The next problem is training students to argue with evidence and not inject their values into an academic argument. 


This is a problem for academic discourse and it too arises from the circumstances of high school. Standardized tests do not allow for outside research and when high school students are required to conduct outside research for an essay they do not have access to academic journal articles. In other words, high school students have no window through which to see academic, scientific, or scholarly debates. All that debate and dialog strictly based on empirical evidence happens behind an insurmountable paywall. 


The sources high school students can access, tertiary sources like Wikipedia and textbooks, only present the academic consensus on subjects. When that is all you see, it is easy to assume that science and scholarship proceed as the orderly accumulation of facts and that debate is not necessary or even possible.


The only disagreement high school students do see regularly is religious, cultural, and political, which is based more on beliefs and values than empirical data. Not surprisingly they assume making an argument means talking about values, which I strictly forbid. This confused and frustrated many of them. One student actually said to me, "What do you mean by 'argue evidence against evidence?' Facts are facts." To that student, evidence was unassailable truth. Disagreement was only possible in the realm of beliefs and values.  


To solve this problem I leaned hard on sample student papers and the discussion sections of journal articles. There is one sample paper included in the PDF above, annotated to show how a piece of evidence is contradicted by another piece of evidence and so forth, but unfortunately due to copyright reasons I cannot provide any other examples.