The only way that professors know if students know anything about their subject matter is to have them present their knowledge in writing. If students really know what they say they do, they will be able to write it out in their own words. If students cannot write it out in their own words, they don’t know it.
The knowledge and skills students learn by writing research papers are invaluable. Professors usually love to talk about their theses and dissertations because those writings have proven to the entire world their abilities to understand and demonstrate knowledge. Not only have they researched vast areas of knowledge, they organized it, thought critically about it, and presented it honestly and persuasively in their own words.
Writing a research paper is a recursive (forward and backward) process, just as thinking about something is usually recursive. There will be times when students will find much more good information than they thought they would find. There will be times when the research stalls or seems to move backward. But the process does go forward, especially if it is planned. Students need to develop a plan of research, beginning with the day the assigned paper is due and working back to the present. Careful planning and adjustment are the easiest ways to avoid staying up all night to write a bad paper.
One of the purposes of writing a research paper is to develop the skills needed to bring order out of disorder. Since students rarely find information in the order in which they want to present it, they need to make all kinds of decisions and judgments and solve all kinds of problems. In short, they must think critically. Since professors have specific critical thinking skills and learning objectives in mind, students need to study the assignment until they know what is expected of them.
The word research scares many students, yet students do research almost every day. Comparison buying is research; looking up a phone number is research’ calling home to find out when Dad is going to send the next check for room and board is research. These types of research are simple.
Writing a research paper is more complex because of the critical thinking skills required to present the research. Before students can present information about anything, they need to know what it is they are writing about. They need to define and describe their topics and the scope of their paper. In order to define a topic and its limits, students need to ask: what is it, exactly? What is it not? What is it unlike? For example: what is paint? What is latex paint? What is oil-based paint? How are they different? How are they alike? How is outdoor latex paint different from indoor latex paint? How is outdoor oil-based paint different from indoor oil-based paint? Which is better? Why?
Describing what something is naturally leads from one question to other questions. As questions are answered, new questions develop. Within this process of discovery, a research question often presents itself. For example: outdoor latex paint is thinned with water. How can it therefore be used to waterproof the outside of a building? Is there a seeming contradiction here? If so, what is it? If not, how does latex paint protect a building from water damage? Is it better or worse or equal to oil-based paint? How?
After students have a research thread or possible threads based on the questions they asked while describing their topics, they need to begin the process of research by looking for sources. Of course, not just any source will do. Students now need to analyze their sources. As soon as two sources have been looked at and studied, students will have a grasp of whether or not the information is valid, valuable, appropriate, and accepted by the academic community. Continual analytical comparison of sources will separate the good from the bad, the old from the new, the truth from the un-truth or half-truth.
Too many students stop researching when they have located the number of sources required for their writing assignment. This leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of problems, since information is often repeated in different sources or is out-of-date. Ten sources for a ten-source research paper often leads to a scarcity of information. Students need to write from abundance rather than scarcity. No matter what the topic, students will know much more about it than what they end up writing. Research papers are like icebergs; only ten percent shows on the surface. And if the ninety percent below the water is not there, the final paper will be weak, repetitive and full of filler.
While information is being gathered, students need to synthesize what they are learning and discovering. Synthesis is the process of bringing different parts and bits of information together to form a coherent whole. Coherence means that things are put together logically, to produce an understandable chain of reasoning. Point A introduces the topic, which is then defined in point B, followed by a comparison with point C and a contrast with point D, which introduces the causes and effects of point E, which leads logically to the conclusion in point F, which necessitates the call to action in point G.
The researching and writing of research papers makes students experts in the topics they’ve chosen. As new experts, they are able to evaluate not only data and sources, but also the research papers they’ve written. They need to see, from their readers’ perspectives, if their conclusions are supported by fact and authority. If what they’ve written is simply a data dump, they know that they have failed to be creative or original. A data dump is a simple listing of facts, which displays a lack of critical thinking. Students also know when they’ve done good work. It is only by doing good work that students will be able to persuade readers to take their arguments seriously.
Finally, students need to be able to interpret what they’ve researched and written. This requires the highest levels of thinking and is the most rewarding and memorable part of the process. The question “so what?” must be answered. The readers need to be led to the same conclusions and interpretations made by the writer. Interpretation is the process of explaining and extrapolating the meanings of research. What are its implications, effects, and solutions? Why does it matter?
By Bernard Selzler, Ed. D.
Last updated October 2016 by Allison Haas, M.A.