MAT Blog

5 of the Best Sites for Finding Academic Research

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jun 11, 2014 9:47:23 AM

academic_researchThe academic year is winding down for most of us, but my students still haven’t turned in their final research papers yet—and many of them are still gathering their sources! In addition to using the books and academic journals our school subscribes to, here are five of what I consider to be the best sites for finding academic research.

5 of the Best Sites for Finding Academic Research

Google books is bursting at the seams with millions (yes, MILLIONS) of books and magazines that Google has scanned, converted to text and stored in its digital database just for you, dear reader. Although those tricky little guys at Google have wisely omitted several pages from the book to encourage you to purchase it, you can still view large sections of the book and use it as a source.

iSEEK Educationis an academic research engine specifically designed for students, teachers, and administrators. Here are some of iSeek’s perks:

  • It’s safe: Every resource you’ll find through iSeek is editor-reviewed
  • It’s reliable: Search hundreds of thousands of trusted resources from universities, government, and noncommercial providers
  • It’s a time-saver: Register to bookmark any URL for storage in your own online library

RefSeek is still in public beta, but I’ve had a lot of luck with this search engine. RefSeek gives students access to more than 1 billion documents, web pages, books, journals, and newspapers. What I really appreciate about the site is how clean the interface is—no ads, sponsored links or commercial results appear when you use RefSeek.

Virtual Learning Resource Center doesn’t omit Google ads, but unlike searches done directly in Google, Virtual LRC conducts its searches on a much smaller scale, using only academic websites previously recommended by teachers and librarians.

Academic Index is another useful search engine that bypasses all the junk you’ll encounter with a Google search, directing users to only those websites previously selected by librarians and teachers.

Photo credit: suttonhoo / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


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Tags: research strategies, web research, writing skills, writing a thesis statement

5 Ways to Take the Grind Out of Grading Papers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Oct 22, 2013 11:17:00 AM

grading papersThere is a special place in heaven for all teachers, but especially for those of you who teach writing. Not only do you spend five days a week in the classroom, you spend your days “off” grading stacks of student essays, a task that can not only eat up your entire weekend, but lead to a bad case of burnout. Grading papers is never going to be a holiday, but there are simple steps you can take to reduce the tedium and time you spend doing it.

5 Ways to Take the Grind Out of Grading Papers

Location, location, location
Choosing a pleasant, distraction-free working environment is one of the most effective ways to take the grind out of grading. If it’s a nice day, set up shop on the back porch or head to the park and find a quiet picnic bench to work at. If weather keeps you indoors, head to a coffee shop and reward yourself with your favorite drink while you work. If you have an iPod, create a paper-grading playlist full of instrumental music: A little Chopin, Brian Eno or Philip Glass can really take the edge off.

Mix and match
Instead of starting at the top of the stack, grab four random essays and then top off the pile with an essay from one of your strongest writers. Now put the rest of the essays away and forget about them for the time being. Continue this with each stack of five essays.

Grading a strong paper first will make delving into the next four essays much more pleasant.

Focus on two major things
You can easily spend twenty minutes (or more) responding to each paper, but if you are, chances are that you’re doing too much. If the introduction is disjointed and doesn’t contain a strong thesis statement, there’s no reason for you to address grammar in this paragraph. Why? Because it’s going to change in the next draft anyway. There’s no reason for students to add commas to a paragraph that needs to be rewritten.

Instead of addressing everything in the first draft, focus on two main issues in the paper. This will make the whole process a lot less overwhelming for both you and the students.

Grab the wind-up oven timer
Another way to manage your time is by setting a timer. Give yourself ten minutes for each paper and ten minutes only! When the timer goes off, stop and move on.

No more grading marathons
You’re neither doing yourself nor your students any favors when you spend all day Saturday and Sunday tethered to a stack of papers. Grading marathons may get the job done, but how do they make you feel on Monday? Not so good.

Taking time for yourself may mean that students have to wait a little longer for you to return their work, but you owe it to yourself (and them) to return fresh and optimistic on Monday morning.


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Tags: grading papers, writing strategies, Writing, writing skills, writing a thesis statement

Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Mar 21, 2013 3:31:00 PM

effective feedbackHow much time have you spent responding to student essays over the years? Probably more time than you’ve spent sleeping! Providing effective feedback is challenging and there are several reasons for this: First, there are always too many essays and not enough time; then there’s the frustration of laboring over your students’ work, returning them, and getting back a “revision” that is essentially the same paper. We look at the “revision” in disbelief; then we compare it to the first draft and find that, good heavens, most of our comments have been “ignored.”

Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?

It took us a while, but what we eventually figured out is that our students weren’t ignoring our comments. No, the problem had much more to do with us than we cared to admit. While we thought we were offering effective feedback, we were actually trying to do too many things at once and overwhelming our students.

We think Jim Hahn—whose article you can find in Carol Olson’s book, Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Processhas done a nice job of boiling down what are essentially three categories of feedback that most of us use when we respond to student work:

  • We provide comments related to content and organization
    These comments may ask students to develop paragraphs, provide more support or detail—or even relocate, omit or combine paragraphs
  • We make notes or marks addressing grammar, mechanics and spelling
    This is obvious enough: Commas, periods and all the rest...
  • We assign Final Marks
    Final Marks refer to the letter grade or point system we use to “grade” the paper

Indeed, each category has a time and a place. But when we address all three simultaneously, we are sending our students very confusing and contradictory messages.

Not only are we telling them to “develop paragraphs,” we are also telling them to “insert commas” into the same paragraph we want them to change. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, especially considering that the same paragraph may not even exist in subsequent drafts? And when we assign a letter grade to the draft—a 94%, for example—aren’t we inadvertently telling our students, “Hey, nice job—now go ahead and ignore the comments I spent so much time making.”

Here’s Hahn’s two cents: The conventions of writing (grammar, spelling) must eventually be addressed—but addressing them too early in the writing process is counterintuitive. Why? Because students will commit themselves to “correct form” even when the passage has no place in the essay. Here’s Hahn’s hierarchy, his approach towards responding to student work:

Address content and organization first. This may take more than one draft. Once you and the student are satisfied with the development, flow, organization, etc., of the essay, move on to the grammar. THEN, when the work has gone as far as it can go—because we know that “art is never finished, only abandoned”—should we consider assigning it a letter grade. Not only will this make responding to essays quicker, it will also make it more effective.

If you are looking for a few more tips for providing effective feedback, check out one of our recent blogs, “Offering your students effective feedback: 5 essentials.” And while you're at it, download our free guide, Writing Reinvented!

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement, effective feedback

Writing Reinvented: Strategies for Teaching Composition

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Mar 15, 2013 9:31:00 AM

writing strategiesEven for the best writers, Joseph Conrad, for example, writing was difficult. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all.” Writing can be challenging…yes, even for geniuses like Conrad.

Despite its challenges, writing can be incredibly rewarding for both the student and teacher. In addition to this, we know that regardless of where the future takes your students, regardless of their interests, they will need to successfully articulate themselves, both verbally and in writing.

To complement the activities you may have planned for National Reading Month in March, we’ve put together a new guide called Writing Reinvented.

Inside you’ll find:

  • Two strategies for writing a thesis statement:

In the first, we use simple language to help your students understand exactly what a thesis statement is—and what it isn’t. We also answer common questions like, “Can my thesis include my opinion?” and provide a checklist of questions students can use to look at their work in a critical way. In the second part, we’ll break the process of writing a thesis statement down into eight easily digestible steps

  • Two strategies to help your students defeat writer’s block
  • An engaging way to teach grammar…without actually teaching grammar
  • “Flash Fiction”: An assignment that challenges students to write a story in six words

We hope that you and your students find our guide to be helpful!


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Tags: writing strategies, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement, composition

Do your students have “the moves” to write a strong thesis statement?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Mar 9, 2013 6:00:00 AM

thesis statementIn our daily quest for teaching resources we can pass along to you, we came across a website called Thesis Builder. Essentially it allows users to plug in a topic, an opinion on the topic, two supporting arguments and a counter argument. From this, Thesis Builder will generate a sketchy, but nonetheless discussion-worthy thesis statement. You’ll also find three additional tools on the site:

  • Topic-o-rama, an ideal pool of 50 prompts to help students brainstorm topics
  • Causinator, a cause-and-effect essay builder
  • Tube Prompter, a video player that allows you to embed YouTube videos and view them without web clutter

Here’s what we plugged into the thesis statement builder:

thesis statement2


And here’s the thesis we got back:

thesis statement3

Alright, it’s not the best thesis statement we’ve ever seen, but it does quickly reveal deficiencies in an argument—which could be a useful way to spark questions like:

  • Did I use vague or general language?
  • Where should I have been more specific?
  • Did I make any generalizations?
  • Is the topic too broad?
  • So what? Why should anyone care about this topic?

Something else we like about the web application is that it exposes students to what Gerald Graff has called “the key intellectual moves” experienced writers take for granted. When we say “moves,” we simply mean the conventions of academic writing that seasoned writers have either been deliberately taught or learned through years of reading, writing and mimicking.

Experienced writers already know how to execute these conventions, but the fact of the matter is that many students will never truly develop the “moves” we take for granted—unless, that is, we truly break them down and make them digestible. 

To help you do this, we highly recommend Gerald Graff’s book, They Say, I Say. In it, Graff  shows that writing well means mastering some key rhetorical moves, the most important of which involves summarizing what others have said ("they say") to set up one’s own argument ("I say").

In addition to explaining the basic moves, his book provides writing templates that show students explicitly how to make these moves in their own writing. You can download a PDF of the first 63 pages here.


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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement

Strategies for Writing a Thesis Statement Part II

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Dec 4, 2012 9:29:00 AM

student writing thesis statementWriting a thesis statement is always challenging to our students, even if they are strong writers. Why? Well, because writing a thesis statement involves more than simply figuring out what the writer’s response is to a particular topic. It also means that she understands that response, has refined the intellectual rigor of that response based on research, and put that informed and critical response into writing. That’s quite a challenge!

Now that your students know what a thesis statement is—and what it isn’t—it’s time for them to take a shot at writing their own. To make the process less intimidating (hopefully!), we’ve put together the following exercise. It’s not perfect, but it does break down the process of writing a thesis statement into 8 digestible steps.

Writing a Thesis Statement in 8 Steps

In this exercise, you will work toward developing a draft of your preliminary thesis. This exercise is modeled on techniques outlined at







Identify your topic



The television program American Idol





Write a short statement of purpose



I propose to explore how American Idol exposes some issues about American identity.





List 3 or 4 (maybe more) guiding questions that your paper will address



1. Is American Idol “reality” TV?

2. What does that mean, anyway?

3. Why does reality TV matter to me, the world, our culture?

4. Why do people—even those who detest the show—find themselves fascinated by it?

5. What does AI say about America or American identity today?





Turn one or more of those questions into an assertion.



“Appealing to Marines, Mormons, African Americans and Latinos, and to every region of the country, American Idol has a legitimate claim to its label of reality TV” (Showalter).






List other ideas that you want to include in your analysis; if there are many of them, find a way to categorize them.



Multiculturalism, diversity, the show’s format (voting for the winner, etc.), the emphasis on the nation “American” Idol.




Try using a template as you construct the tentative, working thesis.



Although many people who watch ________ believe that it is ____________ , a closer inspection reveals that _______________.






The working thesis

We are riveted to American Idol because it shows us the vast diversity in America.





The final thesis (this comes after many, many stages of revision)

“At once a competition, a talent show, a soap opera, a make-over fest, a patriotic celebration and an election, American Idol showed how post-millennial United States is changing with regard to race, class, national identity and politics” (Showalter).

*The source of this example comes from Elaine Showalter’s essay “Window on Reality: American Idol and the Search for Identity.” The American Prospect 14.7 (July-August 2003).  Please note that Showalter is not a student writer. She is an acclaimed academic and professional writer.  You don’t have to match her level of eloquence and dexterity, but why not aim high?  I have worked backwards from her thesis (imagining a writer’s process on this topic) in order to demonstrate how to use the steps outlined above.

And now, it’s your turn…



Write it out…




Identify your topic











Write a short statement of purpose











List 3 or 4 (maybe more) guiding questions that your paper will address’













Turn one or more of those questions into an assertion.













List other ideas that you want to include in your analysis; if there are many of them, find a way to categorize them.











Try using a template as you construct the tentative, working thesis.



Although many people who watch ________ believe that it is ____________ , a closer inspection reveals that _______________.






The working thesis










The final thesis (this comes after many, many stages of revision)




You probably can’t fill this one in just yet…




If you are looking to supplement your writing curriculum with a few more writing exercises, you might be interested in a few of our other blogs:

Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement

Strategies for Writing a Thesis Statement: Part I

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Dec 1, 2012 6:00:00 AM

Thesis StatementWriting thesis statement—especially a slick, finely tuned one—is tricky business, even for the best writers. It takes patience, practice and continuous refinement. Writing a thesis statement is also challenging because it involves more than simply figuring out what the writer’s response is to a particular topic. It also means that she understands that response, has refined the intellectual rigor of that response based on research, and put that informed and critical response into writing

Considering that, it makes sense that our students are intimidated by the process of writing a thesis statement!

To make the process less intimidating (hopefully!), we’ve put together this handout. Have your students read it and then discuss it as a group. In our next post, we’ll share another handout that breaks writing a thesis statement down into 8 digestible steps, so stay tuned!

Strategies for Writing a Thesis Statement: Part I

What exactly is a thesis? A thesis is a claim that you make in your paper, a claim that announces not only your central focus, but gives your reader an expectation of what you will be analyzing or arguing in the pages to come.  The thesis goes beyond stating a topic—it puts a core complexity about the topic into writing, giving your reader a thought-provoking problem/issue/interpretation to consider. 

In the thesis, you should “develop an interesting perspective that you can support and defend. This perspective must be more than an observation. “America is violent” is an observation. “Americans are violent because they are fearful” is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.

Let’s put another way: A good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view (

What isn’t a thesis?

• A statement of fact: Music in the twenty-first century is widely available on the Internet.

• A generic or general observation: There are many music genres and they each hold a unique appeal for audiences across America.

• An uninformed or uncritical personal opinion: Björk is one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever heard. Why do people buy her music?

• An empty proposal of “how” you will explore/prove a topic: In this paper I will show how learning music can help students improve their math skills.

• A widely accepted position (offering little to intrigue your reader): Learning music can help students improve their math skills.

• Pointing out the greatness of someone widely considered to be great: Mozart was one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.

Do I need to have a thesis before I begin writing? Not necessarily.  Some writers find it to be a good strategy to just begin writing—either brainstorming, or writing several expository passages, or constructing outlines—before the thesis is fully matured.  Many writers who learn to value the process of revision discover that often times their thesis emerges out of that process.  Very often, a thesis is not articulated until the draft’s conclusion.  In revision, the writer can identify this thesis statement and then work it effectively into the introduction.

The thesis as work-in-progress: As you develop the paper in a series of revisions, the thesis also moves through a series of phases:

Phase 1: the preliminary or “open” thesis

Phase 2: the tentative or working thesis

Phase 3: the final thesis or “closed” thesis

Can my thesis include my opinion? That depends what you consider an opinion.  Consider these two definitions of “opinion” (from the American Heritage Dictionary).  “1] A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof” and “2] A judgment based on special knowledge and given by an expert.”  If your definition of opinion is #1, then the answer is “no.” Your thesis should not include your opinion since it is an unsubstantiated opinion.  If, however, your definition of “opinion” is #2, the answer is “yes,” because you are referring to your informed and critical opinion.  The thesis is not a place for an uninformed, uncritical opinion.  However, you may begin the process of thinking about a thesis by examining your opinion.  The process of examination, inspection, analysis, and research should lead you to the point where you are able to express an informed, critical, analytical, and well-supported “opinion.”

 Do I have a thesis?

  • Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
  • Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
  • Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
  • Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
  • Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
  • Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis?
  • Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear?

Opinion (subjective): "I loved Huckleberry Finn!"

Phase 1 (generalization): Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.

Phase 2 (a working thesis): In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.

Phase 3 (an analytical claim): Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain's Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave "civilized" society and go back to nature.

Is there anything in particular I should avoid? Avoid using the words “interesting,” “good,” “bad,” “great,” “exciting,” “nice,” etc. in your thesis statement. We use these words all the time in spoken English to communicate our thoughts on various topics.  In writing, however, these words are so vague that they don’t communicate very effectively.

If you found this helpful, check back on Tuesday for part two! In the meantime, feel free to stop by our resource library for downloadable guides, lesson plan ideas, podcasts and webinars on demand.

Browse our collection of On-Demand Webinars and  FREE Downloadable Resources

Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills, writing a thesis statement

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