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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Research Projects

Getting Started

You’ve read the assignment, understand what you need to do, completed the preparatory reading, and gotten an early start. Now you need to start writing up the assignment.

Here’s where many students go wrong if the assignment requires a complete research essay or paper:

1) They start at the end of the research process rather than the beginning. Why? They read a sample research paper and see it’s a well-crafted argument with a thesis and supporting evidence, so they assume they should start with a thesis.

2) They select topics or research questions that are too broad and/or vague.

3) They fail to see what’s significant, important, or relevant about their research question.

4) They never answer their research question, instead writing about their research question’s general subject.

These approaches all share common problems: the students are going about it backwards. Research papers usually start with a very narrow (not broad) research question that’s specific (not vague) and then work their way towards a tentative answer (the paper’s thesis). Yes, that’s right: You first develop a research question, then you set about trying to answer that question. The research essay’s thesis is the answer or possible answer to your research question.

Here’s where many students go wrong if the assignment requires they complete one or two smaller or partial steps (such as an annotated bibliography) towards a research essay:

1) They select readings that seem easy and quick to read and/or analyze because the sources are simple and short.

2) They fail to select significant, important, and/or relevant sources to read.

3) They fail to solve the assignment’s puzzle before starting so they produce something that does not satisfy the assignment’s requirements.

These problems stem from never realizing the instructor most likely wants the student to engage in an intellectual activity and to demonstrate a particular type of intellectual engagement and/or thinking which cannot be done using shortcut methods.

Tip #1: For an assignment that wants you to start with a research question, start with a question that’s really a question, not a statement of position, opinion, or belief. Write an interrogative sentence such as “Does Dante think …?” or “Can democracy function in an environment that …?” If you have trouble crafting an interrogative sentence, start with a word such as how, what, why, when, or where.

Tip #2: Think small, not large. The world is full of large problems that need answers, but don’t try and solve one of them in a couple of weeks of research and writing.Think about some large problem, then break it down into smaller chunks. Which small chunk interests you the most? Pick that smaller problem. Papers that say a lot about something fairly small (small does not mean insignificant!) are far more interesting to teachers than papers that say almost nothing about something large. Get specific. Really specific!

Tip #3: Choose a relevant, significant, and/or important research question.

Make sure it’s relevant to your class and assignment. (Asking a research question about macroeconomics may not work well in a literature class, but then again it might if you talk with the teacher and pose (frame) the question carefully so you show why it’s relevant to the class.)

If you can, ask a question that’s significant or important to you (the research and paper will be more interesting to you!) or to some larger audience (maybe you want to understand why racial prejudice can be so entrenched in some people.)

Tip #4: Pose (frame) your research question carefully. It should be something smallish or limited (narrow), something people have explored a little (which makes it easier to research), interests you (hopefully), and will be something people should or do care about (or is important to them in some way.)

Now that you have a tentative research question, you’re ready to start your research. (Just remember your research question is tentative since you’ve got to do some preliminary research to see if you have a researchable question and/or you need to narrow or expand your question.)

Tip#5: If you have a smaller or partial research assignment, make sure you understand the assignment. Ask questions: Is this assignment part of a larger assignment? What are the teacher’s expectations and goals for this assignment? For the larger assignment? What specific intellectual skills does the instructor want you to work on? If you don’t understand, ask for explanations and examples until you do understand.

Tip #6: Don’t avoid reading complicated and/or challenging sources. Many beginning students read short and easy texts, and then wonder why they have so little to say in a paper. Spend time looking for and reading relevant sources. If you do, you’ll probably have lots to say and spend less time thinking up what to say!