education, technology, and everything else

The Term Paper As We Know It Is Dead

Posted by Miranda on March 28, 2007

An article in my local paper, the Valley News, today has the above title. It is on the editorial page and is written by Jack Johnson of the Washington Post. You can find it here under the title: Cut-and-Paste Is a Skill, Too.
Mr. Johnson’s point is that, well, the term paper as we know it is dead. Mr. Johnson points out that in many of our professional lives, certainly in mine, what we do is:

synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole.

and that students who have learned to do this have learned a valuable business skill. Meanwhile teachers have to work harder and harder to catch plagiarism. Mr Johnson points out that:

Schools have responded by upping their use of academic integrity pledges and search engines such as, which checks student work against a large database of previously written material. But the rise of such measures hasn’t reduced plagiarism at all; in fact, students and teachers are more likely to spar over plagiarism than ever before.

As I remember writing term papers in high-school, I didn’t plagiarize (much…OK I confess, I did on a history paper), I paraphrased and paraphrased rather heavily too. I don’t remember having an original thought in my head to tell the truth. One of my son’s teachers spent a whole term on paraphrasing, the kids had to paraphrase three or four newspaper articles every week. I suppose it taught them how to turn someone else’s thoughts into their own words which is pretty much what I was doing in high-school.

But did that show what I knew? No it didn’t, it showed what I could glean.

So why not give up the term paper as a measure of knowledge, a measure of what’s been learned, retained in a class? How would you be able to assess students without term papers?

The most obvious choice for teachers and schools is to simply change the way they assess students. Schools could turn to in-class assignments as a more reliable way of evaluating what students know and how well they can express it. The problem with this is that it takes up valuable teaching time, and in-school resources for such assignments, from libraries to technology, vary greatly.

Nevertheless, the educational system needs to acknowledge what the paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular skills — the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of others — and not students’ knowledge, originality and overall ability.

So, if you didn’t have in-class time to spend on this kind of assessment, what would you do instead?


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