University professors in nearly all disciplines require students to write research papers. The Al-Fanar Media team has been reviewing advice on how students can write a good one.
Most professors believe such assignments give students an essential framework for arranging scientific facts and expressing them clearly and accurately.
The acquisition of broader knowledge through research is a great benefit to the students conducting it, but other skills grow and develop as they conduct such research.
Dorothy Mikuska, a U.S. educator writing on the TeachThought blog, offers multiple reasons why students should write research papers. The basic tasks involved in writing a research paper—gathering information, understanding it, and explaining it to others—are skills that students can use to develop their own vision after evaluating data on any subject, she writes.
Following are four of the key benefits Mikuska cites.
Developing complex reading skills. Writing a research paper requires close reading of complex text from multiple sources, which students must understand and evaluate. These tasks are more sophisticated than merely summarising a report and require more detailed work.
Creating a research mind-set. Every student knows how to find isolated facts on Google these days. Writing a good research paper requires them to looker deeper into broader issues and ask critical questions, like Why is this topic important? Who will benefit from this information? Writing a research paper trains students to think of research as a way of investigating more complex issues.
Appreciating the power of attribution. Much of the information that students encounter on social media and online is anonymous and undocumented. Gathering information for a research paper exposes them to sources that model good research practices like citing and annotating the sources of information they use. This encourages them to develop a questioning mind-set: Who said that? Where did that come from? Where can I find more?
Learning about research ethics. The process of writing research paper offers opportunities for dialogue between teachers and students. Teachers can explore their students’ understanding of their reading, discuss their choice of sources and note-taking strategies, and show them how to summarise and paraphrase information without plagiarising.
Research ethics is an area that deserves more attention in academia. A recent study identified professors’ and students’ lack of knowledge about research integrity as a significant cause of unintended plagiarism.
Types of Academic Writing
Academics mostly write texts for publication, such as journal articles, reports, books, and chapters in edited collections.
For students, the most common types of academic writing assignments are smaller projects that prepare them for writing more scholarly later. The online editing service Scribbr summarises some of the most common student writing assignments as follows:
Essay: A fairly short, self-contained argument, often using sources from a class in response to a question provided by an instructor.
Research paper: A more in-depth investigation based on independent research, often in response to a question chosen by the student.
Thesis or dissertation: A larger research project, often undertaken at the end of a degree, usually on a topic of the student’s choice.
Research proposal: An outline of a potential topic for a future dissertation or research project.
Literature review: A critical synthesis of existing research on the topic.
The site also distinguishes between two types of university research papers based on whether the discipline is scientific or in the humanities. In scientific papers, the researcher needs to provide clear, specific data about the research methods and results. In the humanities, papers are mainly based on rational arguments based on evidence from various texts and sources.
Steps to an Outstanding Research Paper
To write a good research paper, you need to follow a clear, organised method. The following suggestions are based on a blog post on Lifehack by Dustin Wax, author of “Don’t Be Stupid: A Guide to Learning, Studying, and Succeeding at College”.
Set a timeline. Write up a schedule with a series of milestones to accomplish by a specific date, such as selecting sources, reviewing them, and writing a first draft. Then you can set a new timeline for additional research to clear up any questions that arose during your initial research.
Wikipedia can help, but only at the beginning. You’ve probably already heard from more than one teacher not to use Wikipedia as a source, and Wikipedia itself carries caveats about the reliability of information in its articles. That said, Wax believes it can still be a helpful starting point for getting a good overview of your research topic. He advises students to note the keywords and source names a Wikipedia article uses and look at all the links. These may lead to better information that enriches your research. Don’t cite Wikipedia itself as a source, though, just the sources it led you to.
Draw on published bibliographies. Once you’ve found one or two good academic sources on your topic, skim their bibliographies and note any titles that sound relevant to your research. Follow up on these titles and their authors to see if they have written other works that will help you. This way, you will soon have far more sources than you need.
Always remember your main research question. Research answers a main question, which usually produces sub-questions. Keeping your main question in mind will help you zero in on sources that provide the information you will include in your paper and avoid wasting time reading sources that don’t help you answer the research question.
Organise your notes and data. Use a notebook or some other system to write down quotes and facts from your source materials, along with your thoughts about them. Make sure each entry is tagged with information about where it came from. You will need this information later to cite your sources while you are writing.
Keep a separate notebook for jotting down ideas. Insights and ideas may pop up at any time as you’re getting familiar with your material. It’s a good idea to have a pen and a small notebook always nearby for writing down everything that seems worth remembering.
Divide your research into sections. Tackling your entire research topic all at once is a mistake. Once you have gained enough information to have a comprehensive picture of the research, it is better to divide it into sections and work on each separately. The connections between the sections will become clear to you as you proceed.
Don’t hesitate to seek advice. Experts can help you save time and effort during your research process. One of your best options for such advice is the professor supervising your research, who will be familiar with the scholarly material available on your topic and have views on the credibility of the sources you’re using. Librarians are also important references who can lead you to the best sources.
Rely on up-to-date sources. The more recent the sources you rely on, the better. Preferably, the bulk of your sources will be from the past ten years. If you find intriguing information from an older source, try searching for the author on Google to see if they have written anything more recent on the topic.
Using Research Skills After Graduation
So far, we have focused on skills that will help you to write a research paper that will earn a high grade in college. But the importance of good research skills goes beyond college. The same skills will improve your career prospects after graduation, as employers are looking to hire personnel with research capabilities.
Glassdoor, a recruitment and corporate website, lists a number of reasons why research skills are so valuable in the labour market. It says people who have them can:
- Identify problems that are hindering performance or the completion of tasks.
- Come up with viable solutions to problems.
- Evaluate resources and use them to increase efficiency.
- Identify customers’ needs and how the company’s products and services can fulfill them.
- Stay up to date with industry trends and market demands.
- Learn new ways to adapt to the demands of the workplace.
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