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Things you may not know: how to write a college research paper


  1. The research question -- Understand your research question thoroughly. If it is a long question make sure that you break it down into smaller segments and that you understand exactly what points you need to cover. If it has any words in it you don’t thoroughly understand, make sure you look these up and have some definitions to apply. If you pick your own research title – definitely check this with your tutor, before you spend a lot of time on it. If your title is wrong, your whole essay will be too. Your tutor has a lot of experience, and will be able to help you narrow your focus if your topic is too broad; or steer you in the right direction so that you can excel in order to achieve the highest marks possible. If you select your own question, pick something that interests you.

  2. Format, Style, Referencing – While these points may seem trivial and ‘something that you’ll tackle once you’ve written your paper’ at the end. I can’t stress enough that it’s worth finding out about them before you start writing, so that you can format as you go along, and DEFINITELY reference as you go along. Any time you use a quote, ensure that you reference it straight away using the correct referencing style, and put the text in your bibliography/works cited section. When you reference do obviously include all the relevant details, of author, book title, publisher and the crucially important page number that the quote was from. If you do this as you go along, it WILL save you a lot of time in the long run. It’s an excellent habit to get into, and will save you rifling through books to try and track down the quote, or flicking through to try and find the correct page.

  3. Mark Criteria – this should be available to you. It will often be in your module handbook, or posted online on a virtual learning environment (if it’s not ask your tutor for a copy). Whilst it may look like a boring old grid that you usually ignore; it is worth reading carefully. This is exactly HOW your work will be assessed. This tells you exactly WHAT you need to do in order to achieve the highest marks – so ensure you do what it asks!

  4. Research – the clue is in the title. This is not something you can write just from thoughts in your head. Depending on your subject area, some research papers will be just theoretical, i.e. reading lots of books and electronic journals; other research papers will have a more practical element too, where you conduct experiments, and ask people to complete questionnaires to gather your data. Do thorough research try to include both historical research, to set your topic in context, and cutting-edge research, referring to journal articles from the last 3-5 years.

  5. Structure – Follow any guidelines you’ve been given as to exactly what is expected. Your research paper will probably require you to introduce the topic you’re researching; discuss other research in this area, supporting the points you make with solid evidence – it’s good to compare and contrast research and look at it analytically and critically, rather than just giving a descriptive account. Collect, analyse and evaluate any data. Write a solid convincing strong conclusion that summarises the key findings and shows how your research has contributed originally in this area. Include a bibliography/works-cited and ensure you’ve referenced meticulously throughout. Leave yourself enough time to have several drafts of your work, proof-read it and spell-check it too.

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