The research paper has long-been a staple of school curriculum at many levels. Most students write their first reports in elementary school and continue writing research papers until they graduate. Educators with master’s degrees probably wrote a thesis as part of their degree program, and the culminating experience in any doctoral program is writing and defending a dissertation. Academic writing, we can conclude, is an essential experience for students. Through this work, we build and communicate new knowledge which is an essential skill for “educated people.”
The availability of generative AI is further complicating research papers as part of the curriculum. In school, we are largely concerned with outputs; the existence of products (including test scores, research papers, and other artifacts) is taken as “proof” students have learned. Many educators question outputs as evidence of learning. For these professionals, it is the process of creating the products that is valuable. When it comes to research papers, these educators are more likely to review drafts with students, dedicate time in class to craft research questions, compose sections, and include reflection on the process in their assessment and evaluation schemes. With generative AI, educational outputs such as research papers can come into existence without the effort of a learner. They need not build and communicate new understanding to create the output.
Despite the prominent place it holds in schooling and the recent complications introduced by AI , researching and writing research papers has been a contentious aspect of curriculum for generations. Teachers complain about the quality of the papers and the level of plagiarism. Students complain about the lack of information and the difficulty of writing and citing papers. I suggest those complaints can be reduced, the threats posed by generative AI, and the process more valuable by recognizing several realities of research and aligning research assignments with them:
- Research is designed to answer questions. In school, we too often focus research papers by topics. The simple change to researching to answer a question with an ambiguous answer can improve the experience of research.
- Research is difficult, but highly engaging, work. Simplifying it may actually make it more difficult. By preserving the complications of research problems and the natural circumstances in which we encounter them, we increase the opportunities for students to find a meaningful connection to the problem.
- Research requires one follow certain protocols that are not commonly encountered in everyday life. Educators must provide scaffolding so that emerging researchers can be supported as they gain experience. Scaffolds, however, are not recipes.
- Researchers have many tools to support their work. Many new and powerful tools are technology-based and have become available only to the most recent generations of researchers. This toolbox includes sources of information and data, tools for analyzing data, and even generative AI to support organization and focus.