While we're on the subject of the research paper/process, (if you haven't seen it already) go read Derek's post on the purpose and function of annotated bib, or, as he puts it, "how to (also whether to) reconcile rigor with pleasure in the processes of collection and annotation." It's a thought-provoking few paragraphs.
To ease into this thinking-stuff, I started the same way my students do, with a google search; UNC-Chapel Hill's page was the most complete description of the standard assignment that I could find in a few minutes' search. I've been trying to tease apart the problematic issues Derek identifies:
How does the A. B. fit into the research paper assignment? Derek here, in a comment:
Can the A. B. assignment be used to stimulate rather than deaden student interest? How does topic choice figure in here? I'm not at all convinced that allowing the student free choice of topic will lead to the "passionate, geeky collector" Derek envisions nor that instructor-assigned topics will preclude the development of such enlivened curiosity. When allowed free (sort of) choice of topic, many of my students still gravitate towards the conventional issues that even they are not truly interested in, whereas I think I have (on occasion) managed to suggest research questions that do end up engaging students (in much the same way that a teacher might suggest a book that ends up appealing to a reluctant reader). Certainly, though, the fostering of such curiosity is a central part of what we should be doing, or trying to do. (Not always an easy task, like trying to foster a love of butterfly collecting in a student who doesn't much like the outdoors, as I was reminded the other day in an after-class conversation with a student who readily admitted that he didn't much like to read).
How should this A. B. be assessed? I'll give a few links to rubrics here (while I continue to incubate my reservations-about-rubics post-to-come): here's one from Rebecca Martin of Clark College and here an interesting article about the A. B. in an undergraduate biology course (rubric via supplementary material link).
So I have been thinking about why I have used the A. B. assignment. I don't use it every semester, but I did last semester, as a group project in which 3 or 4 students posted onto a wiki Internet or database sources (as links) along with several-sentence summaries and evaluations. (Students then wrote analytical papers, looking at the sources of disagreement over an issue, using the sources found by their own or another group.) I guess I would say that my purposes in using A. B.s are to foreground the locating and evaluating of sources and to give students much-needed practice in picking out the main position taken by an author.
This semester I'm trying a different sort of annotation in service of the research paper (details to come).