Guiding Students Through the Process of Writing Research Papers

by Deana Swanson


Research papers are probably the most daunting of all assignments for school students. Keeping that in mind, these steps are designed for younger students (grades seven and eight) or for high school students who are unfamiliar with the process of writing a research paper. Our goal is that students will be able to do this on their own after they are comfortable with the process.

First of all, timing can be almost everything. The first two semesters of the year aren’t a good time to begin research papers because it’s too early in the year. It’s better to wait until students have learned a little more. The last quarter isn’t a good time either as most of them have spring fever and will be looking out the window. But I have found that the third quarter, around January and February when it’s cold and dreary outside, is a good time to work on research papers.

Orientation for you

  • January-February: Begin research papers in small steps.
  • Provide 3-pronged folders with pockets and notebook paper. Each step of students’ work will be turned in inside this folder.
  • Usually do one step per day in class together. You will be telling the students exactly what to do, then they will be working on their own with their specific topic. Your instruction takes up about half of the period, depending on that day’s task.
  • Give students good examples for every step. Read them aloud. I usually choose a topic that no one in the class has chosen, or the one topic that my most struggling student has chosen to use as an example. This gives them all an example to follow, and really helps the struggling student.
  • For most topics at this level, try to get them to think chronologically as this helps them organize their outlines. Any history topic can be done this way. I give most examples orally, because if I write them on the board, they usually copy what I write.
  • Give students a grade on each little step. (Accountability!)

Instruction plan

Day 1: Choose a topic

Break: Gather encyclopedias, order library books, etc. Resume when each student has three to five sources. I order books from the library and pick them all up to put in my classroom.

Day 2: Title and Outline Day Titles should be grand! Give them some super-amazing title examples. Don’t allow anything boring or mundane.

Day 3: Bibliography Card Day Write a sample on the board. Walk them through the process. Be patient. This task is really hard for younger students.

Day 4: Note-taking, Day One   Again, write a sample on the board. Super important: Remind them to jot down phrases to prevent plagiarizing. I encourage my students to have three bullet point phrases per card—all on the same topic, of course. Our goal is to complete about ten notecards or more per day

Day 5: Note-taking, Day Two 

Day 6: Note-taking, Day Three  (Add another day if students need more time or if more sources and notecards are required)

Day 7: Introduction Writing Day Give great examples. Be a little dramatic. This will produce much better writing. Encourage students to write two introductions (begin with an amazing fact from their research, a true story, a question, a definition, a quote etc.) and then choose their favorite.

Day 8: Note Card Organization Day Using their outlines as a guide (and encourage students to update their outlines if they have found different information than they had planned), make stacks of notecards based on the information they cover (Introduction, Roman numerals I, II, III, etc., Conclusion) Then have students organize each individual stack into the order they want to write it in. Use rubber bands to secure the packet of cards.

Day 9: Begin Rough Drafts Day With their note cards in hand in the right order, encourage students to get as much done well as they can. “Focused and fast is how I tell mine to approach their first draft. I also make sure that they have a cardstock copy of the “Transition Words” and “Different Ways to Begin Sentences” handouts on their desks.

Day 10: Finish Rough Drafts Sometimes I let them do this in class, but usually I give students about 3-4 days to finish these up on their own.

Day 11: Rough Drafts Due On a Thursday, on time! No excuses. (Don’t ruin your students’ weekends by making these due on a Monday or Tuesday.)

Break: Take a week or two break to allow time for student to have a mental break and for you to diligently grade their papers.

Grading research paper rough drafts

  1.  Mark or circle anything wrong in colored ink. Use editing marks but do not correct them – just draw the students’ attention to the fact that something is wrong and expect them to fix it.
  2.  Put a squiggly line under anything that is acceptable but sounds like a first grader wrote it. This could be a single word, or a phrase, or a sentence. Encourage students to rewrite these parts. Also write “awk.” on anything that sounds awkward and needs to be rewritten.
  3. Give two grades: a content grade and a mechanics grade. If they fix all the mechanics they could get a final grade as high as their content grade. If their content isn’t good, tell them what is wrong and how to fix it (add pages, rearrange, rewrite parts, etc.)
  4. I like to base their final grade largely on their rough draft grade, adding points where they’ve earned them. If they fixed all the mechanical errors, that grade goes up, and if they rewrite, reorganize, and fix whatever I had noted on their rough drafts, their content grade will go up. I usually average the two for their final grade.

Day 12: Editing Day – Review all your editing marks and have students turn to the page in their textbooks which covers editing marks for their future reference. (Do this in class the first day so that you can answer questions. The rest of the week they are on their own.) Do this before you return their rough drafts (still in the folders) or they won’t pay attention to what you are teaching them; they’ll be busy looking at their papers. Let them edit their work in class while you answer questions and explain your markings and comments. Give students about three days to finish editing on their own.

Day 13: Peer Editing Day (After all personal editing is done.) Carefully put students into pairs. Make sure they are with someone who won’t laugh at them but help them. Have students read their papers out loud to another student and encourage that student to make suggestions or corrections. It is a great way for them to hear what their writing sounds like, and it is a great way for them to give each other feedback. This works best in a safe classroom culture.

Day 14: Final Draft Preparation: Title Page, Pledge Page, Outline, Works Cited, etc. Show them how to do these in class. I have found it very helpful to demonstrate this for students using my laptop screen projected onto the board while we are going through each step. This is also about the only time I allow students to have open laptops in my classroom. Give them another week to finish all of these on their own and to add to their papers before the final drafts are due.

Day 15: Final Drafts Due (on a Thursday or Friday) Grade these meticulously and allow students to submit a second or third final draft if necessary until they get it right. I require students to turn in their rough drafts, stapled together and in the front left pocket of their folders. Then I grade them with the rough draft on the left side of my desk, and their final drafts on the right side of my desk so that I can compare them and check to see if the student made all the corrections that I marked.

This is a summary of a much longer in-depth description on guiding students through research paper preparation and writing, and editing. If you are interested, our guide “It’s Research Paper Time is available by contacting us at [email protected].

Pass it on:


CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

Leave a Reply