Using WordPress for Student Research Papers

WordPress logo

I’ve been preaching the use of WordPress to my faculty members in the humanities who want to find a better way for students to write and share their research papers. Up until very recently, the vast majority of faculty members in the humanities at William & Mary have been using the same model of collecting, grading, and returning student papers as teachers have been doing since the advent of the typewriter:

  1. Student types paper, student staples paper, student submits paper.
  2. Faculty member sharpens pencil or gets out red pen and marks up paper. Faculty member returns paper.
  3. Student ignores laboriously crafted feedback from faculty member and flips to the back of the paper to see the letter grade.
  4. Paper gets thrown into drawer, never to be seen again.

Some of my faculty members have recently (over the past three to five years) started using Blackboard’s built in assignments tool to digitize the process, saving paper but often actually increasing the amount of time it takes to grade the papers, since you need to open a digital copy of the paper in a word processor and figure out how to mark it up, then save the paper and post it back to Blackboard. While I’m all for saving paper, the basic problem as I see it remains the same. Students are not really held accountable for the work they produce, and they are more likely than not to never even look at the meticulously corrected papers that faculty members have spent so much effort on.

So here’s how the WordPress model works: The faculty member sets up a blog site at http://blogs.wm.edu and enrolls all of the students as users in the site. User roles are flexible based on what you want your students to be able to do, so you could give all students the role of Contributor, in which case they would only be able to post their own posts and not have any other access to the administrative panel. Or you could give them variously increasing permissions from Author to Editor to Administrator, the latter of these giving them total control over the site. Whatever you do, don’t give them the role of Subscriber unless you only want them to be able to read other people’s posts.

Once the students are added to the site, you can decide if you want the site to be public (open to the world) or various degrees of private, which can vary from closed to everyone outside of William & Mary, to closed to all but subscribers, to closed to all but students in the class. You can even set individual passwords on individual pages to further suit your needs. However, one of the main benefits of creating a WordPress website to publicly display student research is that the site is PUBLIC, meaning a research paper is no longer a secret relationship between the faculty member and the student, but a public exhibition of the type of work the student produces. Faculty members I’ve spoken to who have been using this model of submission for student research papers have seen a marked improvement in the overall caliber of writing the students produce. Knowing that your research paper is just a Google search away from the eyes of the rest of the world has a way of concentrating the mind.

Another great benefit to having students post their research papers in a public forum such as WordPress is that it makes collaboration much easier. Students can read each others’ work, edit their posts if so desired, and comment on research papers, all directly in the Web browser. Faculty members can easily add comments and suggestions to student posts as well.

A third benefit is that it gives the students a small, albeit significant, introduction into the world of Web development. Students start to understand the art of developing attractive, compelling Web content, and also have the opportunity to include a wide array of multimedia content into their research. Images, maps, videos, and audio files are all easily incorporated into a research paper in ways that just aren’t possible with a paper copy or even a digital copy of a Word document. And students now have a live URL showing their research to post to their CV or resumé.

If faculty members are thinking of embarking on this sort of assignment opportunity for their students, I always suggest testing out the software first. Create your own site and model a student research paper so that your students can see what is expected, but also so that you can see how much work is involved in the technology side of things. It’s always good to have a good idea of what you’re asking your students to do so that you know what is appropriate from a workload perspective.

One of the great side benefits of WordPress is that once you learn how to do it for a class, you can create any number of websites for any purpose you like, whether for a club or an organization, or your own personal electronic CV. Members of the William & Mary community can get started now by visiting http://blogs.wm.edu and creating their own WordPress account. Happy Web developing!

If you’re interested in reading more about how to use WordPress in the classroom, you may be interested in one of the following posts: Using WordPress in Your Class for Student Writing and WebsitesBlogging in the Classroom: Three of My Mistakes, and Finding WordPress Help.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College