WRITING RESEARCH ESSAYS A GUIDE FOR
STUDENTS OF ALL NATIONS - PART ONE
Table of Contents
Topic Selection and Analysis
Should you use the Words of Others?
PowerPoint related to this site:
See the author's books for students: Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog (2014) and Beyond the Answer Sheet: Academic Success for International Students (2003).
The research essay is a common assignment in higher education. The concept of the research essay at first appears simple:
- Choose a topic
- Do research on the topic
- Write an essay based on your research
But it is really not simple at all. International students often are very disappointed when they receive their first essay back from a professor. The comments may include:
- "No research question"
- "Too general" or "Not sufficiently narrow"
- "Improper use of sources"
- "Much of this material appears to be plagiarized"
- "Inadequate bibliography"
- "No journal articles"
and so on.
This website will show you what professors expect from students doing research essays. Lets begin with the topic:
Topic Selection and Analysis
It is obvious that a research essay must have a topic, but what sort of topic? Some professors will give you a list and ask you to choose one. Others will give you general guidelines only. For example, you might be taking a course on "The History of the Middle Ages in Europe" and be told to write a paper on some important person of that period, showing how his/her life influenced the Middle Ages.
The first thing you will need to assume is that your topic is likely to be too broad, that is, it will require you to deal with too much information for one essay. If you leave the topic broad, it will be superficial. Picture it like this: You have two lakes, one small but deep, the other large but shallow.
The wide but shallow lake is like a broad topic. You can say many things about the topic, but everything you say will be at a very basic or survey level. For example, if you were writing an essay on the development of industrialization in Korea, you could say many things, but you could not, for example, go into in depth analysis about the effect that the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s had on the progress of automobile manufacturing in Korea.
The narrow lake is like taking your broad topic and choosing to deal with only one part of it, but now in depth. For example, instead of writing a history of the development of industrialization in Korea, you could choose only one time period along with one industry and narrow your topic to "The effect of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s on automobile manufacturing in Korea." Now you have room to do more analysis and get deeper into the subject.
In the academic setting, professors usually want you to narrow your topic to allow for
depth. You do this by choosing to deal with only one part of the topic, not all of it.
The Research Question
Many students believe that the purpose of a research essay is to report on the books and articles they have read. They think the professor wants them simply to quote from or summarize what theyve read so that the result is an essay that tells the reader all about the topic. This, however, is not the purpose of a research essay.
A research essay is intended to allow you to answer a question or
to the topic you are studying.
How can a student develop a proper research question?
- Narrow your topic as described in Topic Selection and Analysis above.
- Use reference sources or short introductions to your topic in books to discover aspects of the topic that are controversial or need investigation.
- Develop a few possible research questions based on what you find in reference sources. These should be one sentence questions that are simple and clear.
- Choose one of these questions to be the research question for your essay.
Take note that every research essay should have only one research question. You do
not want to have an essay that states, "The following paper will examine __________
and will also _____________ and will also ________________." You want to deal
with only one question in any research project.
Here are some examples:
For more information in narrowing topics and creating research questions, see Chapter Two of my online and print textbook, Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog.
Structure of a Research Paper
The way you structure or outline your research paper is very important. It must have definite sections to it:
Introduction The introduction serves two purposes. First, it allows you to provide the reader with some brief background information about the topic. Second, it lets you state your research question. Note that your research question must always be in your introduction. It's best to make it the last sentence of your introduction.
The Body The body of the research essay is the main part. It is generally broken down into various headings that deal with aspects of your topic. It is not easy to decide what headings should be in the body or in what order they should come. You must look at your topic and ask yourself, "What issues must I cover in order to answer my research question?" This may mean that you need a section to describe the controversy in depth, a section to answer the arguments of someone who does not agree with your position, and a section to make a strong case for your position being true. Here are some examples from the topics we discussed in The Research Question above:
"Did the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s bring harm or did it bring benefit to the automobile industry in Korea?"
II. Initial Effect on the Automobile Industry
III. Later Effect on the Automobile Industry
IV. Was the Effect Positive or Negative?
"Was the religious conversion of Constantine genuine or only a political act?"
II. Arguments that the conversion was genuine
III. Arguments that the conversion was only a political act?
"What evidence is there, if any, from the Netherlands euthanasia experience that legalizing euthanasia creates a slippery slope?"
II. The Laws that Control Euthanasia in the Netherlands
III. Actual use of Euthanasia Laws in the Netherlands
IV. Is there evidence that Doctors are going beyond the Controls of the Euthanasia Laws?
The Conclusion The conclusion summarizes your research and answers your research question.
For more on structure, outline, etc. see my textbook, Research Strategies.
For a good example of the use of resources to answer a research question, see the essay, Penguins vs. Lemurs, a pdf file of a project done by Trinity Western University student Kevan Gilbert, and reproduced with permission.
Last revised: 7 February 2014