by Jarin Eisenberg
No matter what your area of study, or what degree level you are pursuing, honing the skills required to write a dynamic research paper is a must for any college student. While having solid grammar and correctly citing your sources are basics, a truly great research paper portrays a level of interest and attention to detail that comes from investing the time it takes to write it thoroughly. As someone who has written and graded many a research paper, here are some steps to go above and beyond.
Step 1: Review the Rubric
An excellent research paper starts with an understanding of what is being asked of you and how you will be graded on meeting those objectives. Your first step should always be to review the prompt, guidelines and rubric for the assignment. The rubric will serve as a checklist you can use to make sure you are hitting all of the goals of the assignment. I am a big proponent of printing these documents out and having them on hand as you construct your paper.
Step 2: Plan Ahead
Since the entire course is open to you from the start of the term, look ahead and plan accordingly. See how your course schedules align with your work and family obligations, and carve out time to really dig into your work. Searching for and reading sources are always going to take more time than you think.
Step 3: Choose Your Topic
Once you understand your goal, choose a topic that is of interest to you. Even if the prompt outlines your topic with a somewhat narrow scope, find an angle that allows you to explore your interests. The best place to start is your textbook and assigned readings in the course. What have you covered so far in the class that has caught your eye? What do you find yourself thinking about when you log out of your course for the day? The more you can personally engage with the topic, the better the experience will be.
Step 4: Finding the Right Sources
A crucial part of writing a successful research paper is finding the right sources. Often your instructor will outline the types of sources you are to use, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, trade journals, newspaper articles and organizational websites. The best research papers incorporate many different types of sources to present a current and holistic take of the topic being addressed.
For example, the use of peer-reviewed sources is a common requirement for all college courses. These are the best and most appropriate sources because the information has been vetted and put through a rigorous process that checks for academic integrity in the methods and ideas presented. It is also important to know the type of sources that are not suited for a research paper, such as Wikipedia. Open source and aggregator sites are generally to be avoided. Instead, try to use primary, respected sources of the information. Organization and government sites are a great way to further support the topic at hand. For example, the Department of Labor site can provide you with statistics and reports on different trends that give the reader, and your paper, more context.
Step 5: Provide Editing Time
The most interesting topic and best sources are only as good as your ability to communicate your ideas clearly. The structure of your research paper and your writing style are fundamental elements of any assignment that should be closely examined. Sometimes, academic writing can be an adjustment for people who have been outside of the classroom for a long time. The Purdue Online Writing Lab is an in-depth resource for those who need some extra advice and best practices in this area.
Giving yourself time to edit your work is also critical. Build in the time it takes to step away from your paper and see it with fresh eyes. It’s a good idea to print out your work, read it aloud and have another set of eyes look it over as well. You can also use Grammarly, a free web-based editing tool, to catch mistakes and provide advice on word usage and voice. If the first draft of your paper is the same as your final submission, you probably haven’t spent enough time editing and structuring your work.
Step 6: Know Your Resources
First and foremost is your instructor. Ask a lot of questions: don’t be shy to ask for help deciding on a topic and finding appropriate sources. Also, check your instructor’s policy about reviewing a draft of your work.
Chatting with the librarian can also help with finding sources. Florida Tech has a dedicated librarian dedicated to helping online learners use the library resources and databases. Take advantage of this resource! The university has a “chat with a librarian” function which makes using this resource easy and accessible.
Step 7: Review Feedback
Once you have submitted your paper and receive your grade, your work isn’t finished. Take time to review the feedback provided by your instructor and use that feedback on future assignments. You should be fine-tuning and improving your research and writing skills with every assignment you submit, so each step is becoming easier and more familiar as you progress through your degree program. Taking the necessary steps early on in your academic journey to acquire these skills will make your assignments more enjoyable. You should also receive better grades and feedback, and your GPA will like it too.
Jarin Eisenberg is executive director of Melbourne Main Street and an instructor at Florida Institute of Technology, where she previously was the coordinator of online degree programs at the Bisk College of Business. To learn more about Eisenberg, read our interview here.