How to Write a Research Paper, Part 1: Assigning a Research Paper

by James A Goering II


Every other year, the high school juniors and seniors at our school must write a research paper. This paper must be at least 3,000 words, be properly formatted, contain in-text citations, and have a Works Cited page. The weeks leading up to the due date are filled with stressed-out students and many, many questions.

“Is this the correct way to format this source?”

“Do I have to put an in-text citation after every piece of information in my paper?”

“How do I keep from accidentally plagiarizing?”

Although there is no way to prevent every question and keep students from stressing out, it can help to properly prepare yourself and your students for this project.

Mapping Out the Assignment

Everyone procrastinates, and teenagers are no exception. I’ve found that it works best to assign smaller, intermediate assignments instead of one big assignment. Below is a list of intermediate assignments that my students must complete.

  • Pick a topic
  • Gather sources
  • Write an outline
  • Write first draft
  • Turn in final draft

These intermediate assignments force students to start working on their papers weeks before they are due, and they also break up a large assignment into more manageable chunks.

When you determine the intermediate assignments, you should decide how much time your students need to complete each assignment. Below is an example timeline for a research paper project showing the time between each assignment.

  • Announce assignment
    • one week
  • Pick a topic
    • one week
  • Gather sources
    • one week
  • Write an outline
    • two weeks
  • Write a first draft
    • one week
  • Turn in the final draft

If you use this timeline, you can easily see that it will take six weeks from when you announce the assignment until the paper is due. When you announce the assignment, give your students a schedule that clearly lists each intermediate assignment and the date that each assignment is due. It is helpful to mark the dates on a calendar or chalkboard in your classroom so that your students will constantly see that they need to be working on their paper.

Determining Paper Requirements

It is especially important for you to clearly outline the requirements for your students’ papers. How many words should they be? How many sources do you require? Will you allow online sources? If so, which type of online sources are acceptable? Students may groan when they see a long list of requirements, but they appreciate knowing exactly what you expect of them.

Below is a list of some general requirements for a high-school research paper.

  • Word count
  • Number of sources
  • Pages must be typed according a proper format.
  • All pages must be numbered in the correct format.
  • All sources must be properly cited in the text and in a Work Cited page.
  • The paper must have the following parts
    • Title page
    • Blank page
    • Outline
    • Body of paper
    • Works Cited page
  • Final paper must be placed into a binder

Of course, this list is not definitive. You should modify, delete, or add your own requirements to match your goals for the paper.

Grading Rubrics

Just as students appreciate knowing exactly what you require for their papers, they also appreciate knowing how you will grade their papers. Several weeks before their papers are due, I give my students the grading rubric I will be using. Below is an example of a rubric for a research paper.

Research Paper Rubric

When students can see what you will use to grade their papers, there will be no doubt about what you expect and how you will be grading. This can reduce your students’ anxiety and help them focus on each of the requirements while they are writing and editing their papers.

Part 2 of this series will talk about each of the intermediate assignments and address some of the most common issues and questions that both teachers and students face during this process.

If you have questions about anything in this article, feel free to ask me in the comments.

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