Researching the Argument

One of the dilemmas of an English teacher is how to teach students good research skills without assigning the dreaded research paper.  I have sworn off research papers because I’m so sick of reading “research” papers that locate “credible sources” to support lowering the drinking age or making marijuana legal.  However, when we signed on to be English teachers we took a silent oath to ensure our students go to college knowing how to research and what to do with research.  We agreed to teach students how to synthesize varied evidence into one coherent argument.  In college students are required to write essays that incorporate diverse and numerous sources, which mean they have to know how to sift through a lot of information and uncover what commonalities exist within sources and then determine which actually supports their position.  But I refuse to bend and keep chanting “no more research papers, no more research papers.”

Instead, I’ve taken to using court cases to develop these research skills.  Other than the whole persuade jurors to save a person’s life part, being a lawyer is really just about being a good researcher.  When preparing for a case they pore over evidence searching for an answer or the great idea that will save the case.  Lawyers are expert researchers and mimicking their practices will help students better understand the value of research.

  • One technique is to have students pretend they are Supreme Court justices and task them with determining the unconstitutionality of a law by “trying” a case being heard by John Roberts and Company.  Begin by asking students to research the case.  This year a case that relates to the lives of teenagers is the Miller v. Alabama, which is related to the Jackson v. Hobbs case.  After sharing basic info, divide the class into two sides:  Petitioner and respondent.  Then both teams have certain roles to guide their research.  Providing them research areas (like researching the oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court, similar cases, the path the case took to the Supreme Court, and the language of the amendments) will give their research focus and purpose.  Then, have the two sides debate the case as if they are presenting to the Supreme Court.
  • If your students are novice researchers, you could always provide them with six sources about a topic.  Provide a variety of sources, like news articles, op-eds, and letters to the editor.  Ask the students to infer as many details about the topic as possible from the sources provided.  Also, consider asking them what argument about the topic emerges from all of the sources.  This causes them to think about the relationship between the sources and develop a cohesive and well-supported argument.

The greatest part?  All of this is done without writing a 5-page paper with an annotated bibliography.

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