Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Five Easy Steps to Write a Research Essay

One of the most intimidating experiences for recent college entrants is the first research essay. One reason is that either they have never seen a research essay and don't know the format, or they've seen a professionally published article at a post-doctoral level, which looks way more complex than they are capable of writing.

Don't fear! Writing your first research essay is a simple process. Always focus on the learning outcome you are trying to demonstrate to your teacher. Here are the key learning outcomes for your first research paper.
  • Use the library to locate relevant articles.
  • Summarize the findings in the articles.
  • Evaluate the arguments made in the articles.
  • Synthesize the arguments and make a conclusion.
  • Cite your sources accurately using APA (usually) and write a reference list.
Let's look at these steps one-by-one.

First, you need to use the library to find articles relevant to your topic. You will likely do this using a computer search. You can do this at home or in the actual library. The main advantage in using the library is that a librarian may be able to help you to find the articles. The key to this is to use the database to search for relevant terms.

Notice I said "database" not Google. You do not want to waste your time with Google, because Google will give you every general document using your search term. The library database will search the peer-reviewed journals that the library subscribes to, so you know that the results of the search are worthy of investigation.

Be specific in your search terms. For example, if you are writing a psychology paper on neuroplasticity, do not search for "psychology"; only search for "neuroplasticity." The broad search will give too many results. It's better to be too narrow than too broad, because as you widen your search, you will start to find papers relevant to your topic.

Each paper you find will contain an abstract. The abstract is a short statement of the content of the paper. It should be very helpful in determining if the paper might be helpful. Also it will give you some new search terms that could be relevant to your topic. Keep searching until you have at least six papers that might be helpful to writing. (Don't worry, you won't need to read all.) I've done searches and made lists of over 20 papers just to write an 8 page paper.

If the abstract seems relevant, read the introduction and conclusion of any relevant paper. This should help you in two ways. The introduction will provide you with a lot of general knowledge about the topic. The conclusion will help you to understand what the researchers have to say.

If the conclusion is relevant to your essay and you believe that the paper is important to cite, read the entire paper. Pay the most attention to the methodology, discussion, and conclusion. Unless you are in a statistical methods class (in which case, this shouldn't be your first research paper) don't worry much about the statistical discussions.

Even if the assignment says "cite at least one source," remember my mantra: Do the minimum; get the minimum. Use more sources than required to show off your research skills. Your mark may go up as a result.

Make some notes on what the different papers say. Remember, for key concepts, the papers will cite some of the original thinkers. For example a psychology paper on motivation might include references to Mazlow's hierarchy of needs. It's always good to include similar references to the original ideas that the specific topic is built upon. Scholarship is like a building that is built one storey at a time. Acknowledging the foundation is like building carefully.

Arrange your notes into the argument you wish to make. Your thesis does not have to be original, you can agree with or defend someone. There are often different points of view available. In a research paper, you can assess the arguments. Again, if this is your first paper, being right or wrong here is not important to your mark. You have already demonstrate key learning outcomes by finding the articles, reading them, and expressing your understanding.

Now you should be ready to write. Using point form, arrange the key facts you wish to show. Back up these with quotes or paraphrases from the papers you have read. Quote if the writer of the paper has said something in exactly the perfect way. Paraphrase if you simply want to include the information. Follow each use of someone's material with the appropriate citation. In APA style, you place the author's name(s) in brackets, followed by the year of the publication, followed by the page number. End the citation with a closing bracket, then the period for the sentence. If you are in doubt about how to do this, also read my post on How to Use APA Style.

This might seem complex, but really it comes down to this. To write a research essay, first do research, next figure out what the research means, and finally, write about it.

After you've written your paper, if you are still worried, hire an editor to polish the paper. When you get your edited copy back, review the edits to see how you can improve for your next effort. No one is perfect at anything their first try. Just don't give up!
Updated April 2, 2014.