As a college professor, I teach History and Government courses for a small, liberal arts college in New England, and I assign paper assignments each term. Over the past fourteen years, since I began teaching, I’ve noticed a steady decline in the quality of term paper submissions from my students. I have taught at big-name technical universities, small business colleges, two-year art colleges, and now, a women’s college that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees. My term paper experience is varied. Overall student term paper quality has been hurt–by the Internet.
The Internet has been a wonderful development for education in many ways. As a college professor, I benefit from easy research, the ability to email students, and to create term paper assignments knowing my students can use the Internet to do needed research.
And that’s the problem.
Most of my students have no idea how to do appropriate research. They were not taught, as I was in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade, how to evaluate the quality of a source, how to search through a database (or a card catalog–remember those?), how to use an index, how to examine the bias of a source, and how to use what the student learns from the research to make a point and carry it to an original conclusion.
I often see sophomores and juniors who have never, for instance, been asked to examine an objective topic (for instance, abortion, or gun rights, or slavery) and to present arguments for or against the topic, in historical context. These students come to me puzzled, and then angry, because they claim that the assignment is “unfair,” or “too hard.” Professors across all disciplines, including engineering, liberal arts, sciences, etc. report similar findings. Students aren’t given proper research skills in middle school and high school, and it shows in term paper submissions.
Five common mistakes students make on term papers include:
1. Using Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is an excellent launching point. It is not, however, a valid research source. The links at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry commonly are valid sources. Because Wikipedia is user-edited, bias can enter into its information. Do not use Wikipedia as a cited source.
2. Do NOT “cut, past, and tweak,” otherwise known as CP&T. Any professor can enter a suspicious sentence or phrase into Google and find the block of text you CP&T’d. In addition, if you email your paper, often professors can move the mouse over text and it appears as a link–we just hit ctrl+click and we’re taken back to the source you used. That’s potential plagiarism. In my college, it’s an automatic F for the term paper.
3. Don’t buy a term paper from sites that sell essays. At some colleges, students get caught because two students in the same course turn in identical papers from these paper mills. In other cases, anti-plagiarism software catches purchased term papers. It’s not worth it.
4. Don’t use someone’s opinion on a website as a resource. A government website is a valid source. A liberal or conservative blog entry isn’t, unless your article is specifically about liberal or conservative blogs, and you’re citing the blog entry as an example for your paper. Opinion isn’t a valid, objective source.
5. When a professor tells your to use APA, or MLA, or Chicago as your citation style, look up the requirements and actually follow them. Don’t try to argue with a professor the day before the term paper is due. MLA means MLA–it doesn’t mean you can use APA simply because you’re “used to APA.” Writing using different citation styles is a learning process, and in place for a reason.
while students cannot make up for huge gaps in their understanding of research and writing in one short semester, they can use library resources, tutoring, and other students as helpmates in catching up. Avoid these five common mistakes to have a stronger term paper to submit to your college professor in the coming weeks.