We all know how difficult it is to get undergraduates to write good papers. I've come across one directive that I've found works like a charm, and thought I would share it with you all. In my experience, of all the bad habits it is difficult to get undergraduates to break, it is the practice of "having their mind made up" about their thesis and trying to "defend" it all costs, regardless of whether their argument is absolutely terrible. Oftentimes, this results in them just stating their opinion. (I assume readers have had this experience. Am I right?).
Anyway, here's something I stumbled on a while back: tell students not to go into the paper with a thesis, but instead regard writing the paper as a process of discovering their thesis. Here's what I tell them:
- Figure out which course topic interests you.
- Summarize whatever argument on that topic you are most interested in, but feel there's something wrong with.
- Write out the best objections you can to the argument.
- Write out the best replies you can to those objections.
- Keep reasoning through both the objections and replies until you make a case to your reader for one conclusion or another.
- It's only at that point that you know what your thesis is, and it is only then that you should go back and write your introduction, stating your thesis.
Again, it's not foolproof, but I find it really works. It prevents students from doing what comes most naturally to them: simply stating their opinion. It gets them to "forget" about what they want to argue and instead see where the arguments lead! And that is a good thing. :)