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The Unessay: Rethinking the Research Report in Secondary School

The Unessay: Rethinking the Research Report in Secondary School

This past spring I was fortunate enough to attend the online Teaching History Conference hosted by UC Davis. The theme, "Challenges of Teaching and Learning History: Issues of Pedagogy and Content," caught my attention as my colleagues and I were struggling to deliver rigorous, differentiated instruction to our students. One session, led by Cate Denial, featured four university professors describing a novel alternative to the standard end-of-term research paper.

The unessay, originated by Daniel Paul O'Donnell and since enthusiastically expanded upon by multiple professors across the humanities, aims to empower student voice and choice through the creation of original and innovative artifacts that replace the overly formulaic research paper. The expectation of the assignment is for students to dive deeply into an area of interest within the covered class material and generate a product that can be anything except an essay. That being said, most adherents to this approach support a student's choice to write a traditional essay, yet students are highly encouraged to explore different learning modalities to create original interpretations of content knowledge.

The seemingly open-ended assignment is structured in a way that provides students with opportunities to share their interests and hobbies, demonstrate their skills, and deeply reflect upon their learning.

  • Students submit a research proposal and meet with their professor to discuss their project idea.
  • They identify how they plan to assess themselves.
  • They conduct research and gather resources for a bibliography.
  • They create their product and share it with classmates in a showcase.
  • They turn in a written reflection and include their annotated bibliography.

Session presenters discussed roadblocks and how they each approached the assignment differently. Students were not used to being given this much choice and some felt the pressure to be creative. Other professors questioned how rigorous the assignment was, how it should be scored, and what might students lose by not writing a traditional academic essay.

The presenters and their supporters countered with well thought out, research-based approaches to the assignment. Students are writing proposals and reflections and projects often include an additional written component. They shared examples with students (here, here, here, and here) of past projects to generate interest and enthusiasm.

“I point students to shows like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight because the stories on shows like this are, essentially, essays. They make an argument and provide sources. It’s just that the essay is delivered in a nontraditional manner.” - Matthew Teutsch, Auburn University

Educators are discussing the underlying pedagogy and sharing management ideas with others while addressing the argument that these kinds of activities might engage students, but fail to reach beyond surface level learning. Unessay projects are commonly scored against a rubric that emphasizes the compelling nature of the artifact and how effective it is in supporting the acquisition and sharing of knowledge. Success criteria is usually developed by the student in consultation with the professor. Cate Denial suggests this collaborative approach to scoring benefits both student and professor.

What might this look like in secondary schools?

I teach in a middle school and would love to adopt this research project, but can it be modified to work with learners who struggle with reading and writing and who lack motivation to complete such an assignment independently? I think it can and have suggestions as to how it might work.

Let’s take the traditional four quarter school year. From the start of the year, students should learn about the project and be provided with examples as the syllabus arrives at selected topics and standards. Motivate students by developing a list of ideas and resources and seek to engage them in ideation often. Model multiple modalities while presenting your curriculum to students and set expectations high. Dig deeper into areas of high interest for students and reinforce choice and voice throughout to address differentiation. This promotes autonomy and a sense of belonging. As students build competency with the content, employ strategies and activities that could trigger curiosity toward a project idea. For example, they might be interested in designing and constructing a 3D model of a historical encounter explored in class. They might be inspired by photos embedded within a civil rights lesson to curate and publish a digital photo essay on voting rights.  They may even be inspired by a presentation to reimagine a table-top game with historical context.

When the fourth quarter arrives, shift from an instructional role to that of an encouraging and supportive project conductor. Emphasize assignment clarity, project development, and original outcomes. Here are a few suggestions and rationale for getting started:

  • Work with other teachers outside your department to provide support, including templates, opportunities for grade points, and project management help.
  • Give students the time and support they need to complete the differentiated process and product.
  • Students will be busy writing their proposals, receiving valuable personal feedback, and conducting research.
  • Students will be designing and developing their original ideas, including a project rubric, and discussing it daily with the teacher. Teacher efficacy has a tremendous impact on learning as does student self-reported grades.
  • Students will be self-managers, practicing their oral presentations, preparing bibliographies, and developing their conceptual understanding of the content, all with supportive guidance and formative evaluation from the teacher.
  • Projects might need further support via community outreach, video conference interviews, or access to hands-on supplies.
  • Unessay projects should be showcased, curated, and published. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to practice reciprocal teaching with peer groups. Artifacts might further evolve into  National History Day projects.
  • Through this project, students progress from gathering information to deeper learning to learning transfer.
  • Students will be working in a highly engaged and collaborative environment.
  • Students will be citing sources and enthusiastically providing evidence of learning.

In summary, to implement the unessay project in secondary school, consider modifying the schedule and shifting the last quarter from one where student energy and enthusiasm has been zapped by standardized testing with teachers racing through the curriculum in an awkward and unsatisfying manner, to one that embodies strong teacher-student relationship and creativity to produce highly original and creative personal learning experiences.


John Miller is a California Teacher of the Year Finalist (2017) and Fulbright Fellow, having researched games and learning in Singapore (2019). He currently works with underperforming and economically disadvantaged students in middle school, promoting literacy through innovative uses of educational technology. John would like to thank NNSTOY for giving him this opportunity to share his passion. You can learn more about John by visiting his website, johnmillerEDU.com, and by following him on Twitter, @johnmillerEDU.




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