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Creative Alternatives to a Traditional Research Paper

    alternatives to research paper

    Teaching research skills is essential in the secondary classroom. However, are both you and your students ready for something other than a traditional research paper? Read on for 11 creative alternatives to a traditional research paper.

    You assign a traditional research paper, teach all the things, and grade all the work. Then comes the dreaded moment when you find a handful of graded research papers in the trash. (Sigh.) All that hard work for what? To check off a box? To meet a standard or competency?

    To be clear, I’m not bashing the validity of assigning a traditional research paper. They certainly have their place, and some students totally knock them out of the park. But what about the rest of your students? What about the diverse learners struggling with yet another traditional writing assignment? It might be time to rethink how we teach essential research skills.

    The Importance of Research Skills

    With the availability of information online nowadays, there’s a heightened need for solid research skills like vetting sources and confirming valid information (#fakenews). Regardless, you can’t deny the merits of the skills needed to write a research paper:

    • Selecting a topic and honing in on a thesis
    • Establishing questions to guide research and inquiry
    • Evaluating sources for reliability and validity
    • Taking notes and properly citing sources
    • Gathering, organizing, and synthesizing information
    • Considering alternative viewpoints
    • Thinking critically and writing clearly

    … And, of course, bringing it all together as a cohesive product.

    But how engaging and relevant is a research paper as a product? Now, that’s the question we need to be asking as teachers. Are there alternatives to target the same skills but produce products that better reflect the world around us? There has to be a way to take research skills beyond the walls of academia, right?

    After all, isn’t a quality research assignment, paper or not, one that requires students to find and evaluate information that supports a particular claim on a topic? One that ensures students are using information literacy skills and thinking critically? Building upon facts and the thoughts and research of others? Conveying specific information clearly and concisely? 

    Read through the creative alternatives to a traditional research paper below and decide for yourself!

    Creative Alternatives to a Research Paper

    If you’re ready to expand how you teach research skills, the following assignments are a great place to start.

    1. Graphic Essay

    If you’re looking to up your research game and incorporate technology, this assignment is IT. (Pun intended.) The graphic essay encourages students to create a visually appealing representation of their research online. If you’re concerned about rigor, fear not. A graphic essay requires the same process as a research paper, plus elements of visual components and design.

    With a graphic essay, students enhance their research by using both traditional writing and pictures, graphics, videos, and emphasized text. Students begin by planning and researching. Then they move on to the writing and design. Last but not least, they can fill in the rest with the fun visuals. The final product is a research-supported essay that is both well-developed and visually appealing.

    2. Podcast Episode

    If I was writing this ten years ago, I might have called this a radio show, but let’s keep it relevant, shall we? Podcasts are a great way to consume information about a particular topic. So, why not have students use a similar approach to deliver information about a particular topic.

    Have students work independently or in groups to create a podcast episode-style recording that creatively explores their research. For example, maybe they take on the roles of “expert guests” as they dive into their research and expand upon what it means. Play the final products in class or upload the audio files to your class website and let the students select which topics they’d like to listen to. This is a fun alternative that gets students talking about topics they’re interested in without having to overcome their fears of public speaking.

    3. Youtube Video

    Youtube is like the modern-day encyclopedia. I mean, there isn’t anything you can’t learn about on YouTube. Why not take that idea and run with it? Much like the podcast episode option above, have students work independently or in groups to create a lively yet informative video that dives into their research. The video can be animated or interview-style and even uploaded directly to YouTube. 

    This fun alternative gets students diving into their research topic without the dreaded research paper. However, they are still required to conduct research and plan their delivery of the information. To avoid videos that are overly fluffy– or stuffy (I don’t know which is worse)  take time to view a few extremes to set the tone and expectation. Watch and discuss both an engaging Youtube video and one that drones on and on so students understand the difference between the two, making it clear which kind you expect to receive.

    4. Blog Post

    Blog posts are a great alternative to a traditional research paper for many reasons. For starters, blogs have been blowing up on the internet for the past decade, so they’re certainly relevant. Second, you can include many of the same requirements in a blog as you might in a research paper. The biggest difference? A conversational tone.

    Having your students write a blog post is a great way to get them to write about a topic they care about without having to be someone they’re not. In other words, they can leave behind the stuffy academic jargon and put a little punch of passion behind their words while still going through the research process and incorporating valid evidence.

    5. Student Teacher

    They say the hallmark of knowledge is being able to impart it to someone else, right? Challenge your students to engage in this highly-interactive alternative to the traditional research paper. While many other research projects involve an element of argumentation, this one is all about education. Have your students research a particular topic and then design and present an engaging mini-lesson to teach their knowledge to their peers.

    How is this different from a more traditional presentation, you ask? You can make it as similar or different as you please. I suggest requiring an interactive component to supplement their presentation. For example, maybe they plan an activity, create a vocabulary crossword, or even do a short quiz at the end!  Additionally, one of my favorite benefits of this is reminding students how they like to be taught. Boring, long-winded explanations? No, thank you! Remind them to keep their target audience in mind.

    Research Paper Alternatives Perfect for Struggling and Reluctant Students

    I truly believe any of the above activities have a better chance of engaging your students than a traditional research paper. However, the alternatives listed here would be especially beneficial for struggling and reluctant students.

    6. Pamphlet or Brochure

    This is like the classic poster– minus the clunky poster itself. Furthermore, students can really tap into their graphic design skills as they plan their project’s layout and other visual elements. Sure, they may include fewer words than a traditional research paper, but that’s part of the challenge.

    Both pamphlets and brochures really tap into the research skills of synthesizing and organizing. Additionally, with such limited space, students must be highly selective as to which information they include. That in itself requires organization and critical thinking. No long-winded body paragraphs here!

    7. Infographics

    I don’t know about you, but I love a good infographic. They are informative yet visually appealing. What a great combo! So, why not have your students create one? Not only do infographics require clear and concise writing, but they also tap into relevant graphic design skills. (Don’t worry. Tools like Canva make it a breeze.)

    While infographics are fun to look at, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require critical thinking to create one. To make an infographic, students must be able to clearly and effectively synthesize their researched information into a more concise and visually appealing format. If you’re looking to beef up the writing, simply require students to turn in an annotated bibliography as well.

    8. All But The Research Paper

    This assignment closely resembles a traditional research paper, minus the paper itself – just in case the title didn’t give it away. Instead, this assignment focuses heavily on the research process rather than research skills. (Dealing with struggling or reluctant writers? This might be a great option for them.)

    Students are required to go through all the stages of the research process as if they were going to write a research paper. These components include choosing a topic, establishing a thesis, developing guiding questions, conducting research and evaluating sources, citing their sources, and outlining their paper. But that’s where it ends! No actual paper is written. Instead, the attention is on the process, organization of research, and development of ideas.

    9. Social Media Profile

    As ELA teachers, we have plenty of opportunities to incorporate writing assignments into the classroom. Therefore, if you’re simply looking for a fun activity to go along with teaching research skills, a social media profile is a great way to go.

    Here’s how it works: Students must still begin by selecting a topic, establishing a thesis, and conducting research. However, instead of putting their research into traditional essay paragraphs, have them turn it into social media posts. Your students can create real Instagram profiles (or you can provide paper templates) dedicated to their research. What would traditionally be a paragraph turns into a post! Students can use the graphic to display their evidence while expanding upon it in their own words in the caption. They’ll also have to determine the order in which the posts appear. By the end, they’ll basically have a research paper.

    Research Paper Alternatives That Target Persuasion

    If you have to teach persuasive writing, coupling it with research skills is a two-for-one deal. The following assignments require the perfect mix of the two.

    10. Letter to a Decision Maker

    Students love to have their opinions. “If I were in charge…” they might say. It’s easy to talk about what they would do, so why not put some action behind those words? Writing a letter to a decision maker shows students that their voices deserve to be heard. However, it’s also a great opportunity to teach them how research makes for a strong and persuasive argument and how, when combined effectively, they are the catalysts for change.

    For this assignment, have students select a social issue, environmental issue, education issue, or public policy that they feel strongly about. Then, have them go through the research process to gather strong evidence to support their stance and call for change. The fun part about this assignment is that you can have your students determine a real-life recipient and even have them send out their letters at the end. Talk about real world application and teaching students to be active citizens.

    11. PSA Campaign

    Does this sound familiar? Maybe you read about this idea in my post all about teaching argumentation and persuasion. It’s a great assignment to target both research skills and student passion. For starters, this project gives students the opportunity to pick a topic they care deeply about. Then, rather than dreading writing a research paper essay, students are tasked with diving into an issue of their choice in hopes of raising awareness. (That already sounds more engaging, doesn’t it?)

    Begin by having students select a social or environmental issue that is important to them. Then, they must plan, develop, and create a public service announcement campaign around the issue, including backing it up with, you guessed it, research and data. Have students round out their campaign with both a written piece and a visual or media element. While their written component might be a short-form research paper, it could also be a speech, persuasive letter, or educational blog post. As long as it incorporates research, it works!

    Incorporating more creative alternatives to a traditional research paper doesn’t mean throwing the research process to the wayside. Nor does it mean making it any less rigorous. Instead, I’m simply suggesting trying something new that might spark student creativity, interest, and engagement. In fact, as opposed to the traditional research paper, many of the ideas above better reflect how students are likely to see and use research in the real world. These alternative research-based activities will help students understand why research matters rather than telling them they’re writing research papers “because we have to.”

    Sure, designing a new research-based assignment might take a little more planning and preparation. However, once you do it, you won’t regret it. Your students will be more engaged and, therefore, more likely to deliver high-quality work. Plus, I bet you’ll have a lot more fun grading these more creative alternative assignments.

    With that said, here’s to more engaging research projects all around – and fewer of them ending up in the trash.

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