Ideas about purpose, audience and structure that apply to writing essays also apply to research writing; however, a research project asks students to spend more time on the collection of materials and to develop their sense of purpose, audience and structure as their growing knowledge about the subject becomes more complex.

The most important thing for students to remember about completing a research project is that, in the end, most professors are interested in the way students can combine their use of outside sources with their own personal insights about the topic. It should not be a regurgitation of facts and ideas from other sources. It should be the careful integration of those sources with the ideas students have developed as a result of their reading and thinking.

Students certainly do need to use skills of summary and synthesis as they share with their audience the various ideas they have learned about in their research, but merely summarizing and synthesizing material from others is not research. Instead, the research project should represent a higher level of abstract thinking, one that illustrates an ability to summarize, connect, find patterns, critique, and ultimately take a carefully considered position.

The seven research steps listed here can be integrated into a course schedule so that students have opportunities for feedback at important points in the research process.

Seven Steps:

  1. Develop a Research Question
  2. Find Sources: Reading and Note Taking
  3. Evaluate Sources
  4. Establish a Working Bibliography
  5. Prepare to Write: Consider Audience and Purpose
  6. Put It All Together
  7. Final Steps

Develop a Research Question

The best kind of research projects emerge from personal interests and/or commitment to a specific area of study. In the best case scenario, then, students will have time to explore various ideas within a particular course, perhaps doing some informal writing in order to discover interests. Active reading and discussion in the classroom, combined with regular note taking and perhaps conversations with the professor, can help students figure out a particular interest worth the time and effort of research.

Students do not always have to feel drawn to a topic positively, however, to make it a good research project. Sometimes topics that we feel negative or neutral about can provide a strong starting point as well. A good research question is one that a student probably hasn?t been able to answer from the classroom sources or one that lingers and feels unresolved.

Find sources: Reading and Note Taking

Students need to use the library and browse the web, keeping track of key ideas and information on note cards or in a research log (see documentation format). The most general way to begin is through broad reference sources like bibliographic entries such as the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, the Book Review Digest, or the New York Times Index. Specific indexes for specific disciplines can also be found with the librarian's help or with suggestions from the professor. Encyclopedias and internet search sites are also useful for initial, general references. These sources should help students refine the process and lead to more specific sources and a refinement of the research question.

Remember that internet research can never replace print research because only a fraction of the world's printed resources can be found electronically.

Distinguish between primary and secondary sources. If an author has direct knowledge of the topic in question, if an author was a participant or observer to an event, such a source is primary. Authors with indirect knowledge of topics or event are secondary sources, such as biographies, literary criticism, historical surveys and textbooks.

Evaluate Sources

Practice critical reading:

Students need to develop critical reading habits for either primary or secondary sources since both types can exhibit personal and interpretive bias that must be considered when completing research. Preview the entire source first through its table of contents, introduction, headings, conclusion, and bibliography.Does the author's background suggest a particular point of view? What is the author's stance on the topic? Does the author seem passionate, angry, neutral? As students think about sources in this way, they can determine the reliability of what they are reading, taking special care to note similarities and differences among the sources they are using and to discover connections that may exist between sources.

Be cautious with electronic sources:

Students need to be cautious about using electronic research sites since much that they can retrieve might actually be questionable or irrelevant to their projects. Often web material is outdated or connected to hyperlinks that are outdated. An excellent resource for evaluating online sources is "Assessing the Credibility of Online Sources."

Establish a Working Bibliography

Develop a list of all sources at the same time that the sources are consulted. For a source within the library, make sure to include the library call number for easy reference later if the source must be consulted again. Briefly annotating the content of the source is also important for future reference. Source note cards can provide direct quotations or paraphrases.

Brenda Spatt, in Writing From Sources, Chapter 12, (St. Martin's Press), provides the following helpful information about using quotations and paraphrases: If you want to use another author?s ideas in support of your own, if another author's language is especially vivid, or if you want to use another author's words in order to comment on them, then a direct quotation is appropriate.To paraphrase means to offer a point-by-point description of another author's ideas, expressed in your own words. A paraphrase reports on a short passage and covers everything in the passage accurately, fully, and in the same sequence of ideas.

Prepare to Write: Consider Audience and Purpose

Research projects can be written up from a variety of rhetorical contexts. Depending on the area of study and the specifics of the course assignment, students need to develop a sense of the role they need to play for the particular research assignment. For example, if the research requires reporting on various sides of a controversial issue, a student?s role may be to review the controversy. Here the role is informative. A more challenging role would be taken on if the student is also expected to analyze and evaluate the controversy in question. Here the role is evaluative. Another challenging role would ask that the student argue or advocate for a particular position related to the controversy. Here the role is persuasive

Put It All Together

Develop an Initial Thesis, Organize Note Cards, and Outline

By now, students probably have more information than they need and have been thinking about their opening research question in a variety of ways, leading to some initial ideas that can be used as an initial thesis statement. The act of writing will help students refine the central point of their project; so, even if the opening thesis appears sketchy, writing with it and from it will help students continue to draft. A good way to begin is to review sources that have been used and to reflect on how they work together. Once students have done an informal review of sources, they may find a suitable working thesis will emerge and give them a starting point. Note cards can be reviewed again after a working thesis is established. Students can then organize them into categories that seem to best represent the way the thesis can be developed and from this set of categories, a working outline can be devised. Provide a heading for each note card and then group them as you prepare to begin writing. If working from an outline is desirable or required, students can either sketch the main sections of their paper into topics and subtopics or develop a formal outline using the following skeleton:
  1.  First Major topic
    1. First Subtopic
      1. first minor subtopic
        1. illustration
        2. illustration
      2. second minor subtopic
        1. illustration
        2. illustration
    2. Second Subtopic
      1. first minor subtopic
        1. illustration
        2. illustration
      2. second minor subtopic
        1. illustration
        2. illustration
  2.  Second Major topic
And so on . . . keeping in mind that no matter how much time is spent developing an outline in advance, writing the draft will inevitably lead to changes.

Write a rough draft

Students have now completed research on a topic of interest to them, developed a group of note cards, composed a working thesis and outline, and are now ready to begin drafting. Students should, in fact, begin feeling like they have developed a certain amount of expertise with which to begin. To begin writing, they can simply follow the outline and write sections in order, or they can begin in the middle and wait until they have composed quite a bit of the paper before going back to the introduction. Either way, it?s a good idea to write sections at a time and take a break to let the material sit, to go back and review it, and then write some more.

Integrate Sources

Writing the rough draft will require integrating quotations and paraphrases into the paper. Brenda Spatt, in her book Writing from Sources, recommends that students use quotes sparingly. An overuse of quotes will make it seem that students have nothing to say. Also remember to let quotes make their points and to avoid following them with explicit summaries of what was just quoted. Likewise, paraphrases of an author should never be the controlling force in the paper. The best rule of thumb is for students to use a combination of summary, quotation, and paraphrase as a way of supplementing or helping to substantiate their own ideas. Spatt also points out that it is important for students to remember to quote accurately and exactly and to tailor quotations to fit their own writing. For example: When you delete words from a direct quotation, make sure to use the conventional symbol for deletion: three spaced dots called an ellipsis.

Here's an example from Brenda Spatt's Writing from Sources:

THE EXACT QUOTE: It is not true that suffering ennobles the character: happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive. (W. Somerset Maugham)

USE OF ELLIPSIS WITH EXACT QUOTE: Maugham believes, "It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; . . . suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive." 

* If you want to add a word or phrase to a direct quotation in order to make it fit your own writing, then use brackets. You insert the information inside the quotation and place it in square brackets. Here's an example:

THE EXACT QUOTE: As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. Albert Einstein

USE OF BRACKETS WITH EXACT QUOTE: Einstein said that when sovereign nations "[possess] great power, war is inevitable."

Final Steps

Share drafts in a peer workshop: Identify places in the paper where you would like specific advice. Ask for positive feedback and criticism. Ask if readers can understand the overall point of the paper. Ask if all the parts relate to the whole/overall point of the paper.

Revise based on feedback. Then Polish documentation format, grammar and style. Always proofread.

Next, visit Documentation Format for helpful advice on working with sources.


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