Planning a Paper

Major papers, also called term papers, are common assignments in upper-level undergraduate courses and are a cornerstone of graduate education. Whether it’s your first time writing a term paper as a college senior or you’re a seasoned veteran preparing your master’s thesis, the process can be very stressful! Understanding the why, what, and how of structuring a paper can help you deliver a clear, concise, and comprehensive message to the reader (a.k.a. your professor or research committee). Importantly, the content of any term paper will vary widely depending on the focus of the course, the specifications of the teacher, and the interest of the study. Therefore, this post will focus on the structural and organizational components of a major paper to help set you up for success.

PRE-WRITING PREPARATION

Before you start your paper, be sure to do your research! Interest alone does not always equate to a good term paper. In order to determine if a topic is appropriate for your assignment, you may want to reflect on the following questions:

Relevance: How does this topic relate to our field or the specific subject matter covered in this class?

Rationale: Why is this topic important to the field, and why does it deserve our immediate attention?

Existing Knowledge: What do others already know or understand about this topic?

Contribution: What will someone gain from reading this paper? How will the paper confirm or refute what we already know, help explain a complicated or complex theory/issue, or provide new insight on this topic?

In addition to answering the questions listed above, you may want to consider the following guidance as you prepare to write your paper: 

CHOOSE THE TOPIC CAREFULLY

If possible, choose a topic that truly interests you; we tend to invest more time and effort on tasks and pursuits that are of personal interest, which will likely translate to a quality paper and higher grade. Find a reason for writing about the topic you have chosen! It will be hard to convince your audience of the topic’s importance if you do not believe it yourself. We do not always love the course content or the general subject areas we are assigned to write about, but there are usually ways to approach a topic to make it relevant and interesting.

KNOW THE PURPOSE OF YOUR PAPER

Writing a paper to convince an audience (subjective) is much different than writing a paper that synthesizes existing research or to better define a complex topic (objective). One of the main difficulties in grading term papers is when writers does not achieve the stated purpose of the assignment. Be sure to check the rubric and reach out to your instructor for clarification if you are unsure about what type of paper you are meant to be writing! This can be the difference between an A paper and a B or C paper. 

WRITE FOR THE READER

Putting our thoughts and ideas into words is one of the great challenges of communication, even when we aren’t being graded! Writing for the reader means that you are communicating clearly and concisely in words that the reader can easily understand. Consider your audience and tailor your writing style appropriately; writing for peers, the public, or fictional readers is very different than writing scholarly papers for an upper-level undergraduate or graduate class.

UNDERSTAND YOUR PAPER LIMITATIONS

Be aware of how much space you have (i.e., page numbers, word count) to complete the assignment. A two-page argument will be drastically different from a 20-page argument. The shorter or more limited the paper, the more important it is that you are able to prioritize information, include relevant details, and communicate clearly and concisely. Longer papers also require you to do these same tasks, but you are gifted with more space to provide details and support for your arguments or statements, hypotheses, and conclusions. Additionally, your topic outline becomes much more important as the paper grows in length and complexity!

LANGUAGE MATTERS

Grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and style guides are all tools that help your reader understand the content of your paper. More importantly, it demonstrates the care and skill of the writer! Why should the reader care about your paper if the writer doesn’t take the most basic steps to present quality work that is communicated professionally? Be sure to check the style guide for your field (APA, MLA, or Chicago) for guidance on overall formatting, in-text citations, and reference lists. These style rules may seem restrictive or even pointless, but they communicate your commitment to the minimum standards of your profession!

WRITING YOUR PAPER

Most movies and books use a predictable script or sequence to guide the story from beginning to end. First, characters are introduced, and relationships are established. Then, our characters face a challenge before finally finding their happily ever after. Similarly, a term paper follows a standard format guides the reader through your content in a logical order. Moreover, this structure helps the reader follow the arguments and/or key points made by the writer. Keep reading to learn about some of the major structural considerations that help the reader follow and better understand your paper: 

THE TITLE

The title needs to describe what the paper is about. Of course, the title doesn’t tell the whole story, but you want it to intrigue the reader enough to open the paper and commit to reading.
Consider this like you would the headline to a clickbait social media story. As a reader, we want to know the topic of the paper and get a general sense of what will be covered. Choose to be direct, rather than fancy or creative:

“Pros and Cons of Distance Learning in College”

This simple title communicates to the reader that the we will present the positives and negatives of distance learning in college. In addition, it tells the reader that we are not talking about distance learning in secondary or elementary classrooms or distance learning training in a corporate setting.  Finally, the reader knows that we aren’t going to try to convince them that distance learning is definitively good or bad. In this sense, our title provides the reader a preview of our paper and its content.

INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, & RATIONALE

There is a golden rule in academic writing: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.” If this sounds repetitive, it’s because it is! As researchers and writers, we get to be creative in our approach to addressing a problem or explaining a theory. However, when it comes to actually writing, the more clear and direct we can be, the better. 

Paper introductions may vary slightly depending on the type of paper you are writing, but the intent remains the same. In an introduction, you are telling the reader what you are going to tell them.  

In the fall of 2018, there were 6,932,074 students enrolled in some type of distance education course (NCES, 2020) compared to the 2,642,158 students enrolled in 2014 (NCES, 2015). This change represents a 300% increase in just four years… This paper presents arguments for and against the use of distance learning for college students in a global business environment. Factors considered in these arguments include consumer preference, changing global marketplace, student learning preferences,…

An introduction is fairly short (½ page to 1 page) and sets up the reader for all the details that are going to follow in the body of the paper. In the foreshortened example above, the writer argues that there is a “need” for this topic and we have given them a preview of the structure of our remaining paper. 

TOPIC OUTLINE

Once we have introduced the topics to the reader, we structure our paper following a developed topic outline.  Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2020-10-23 at 12.16.19 PM.png

The body of the paper accounts for about 80% of your total paper and it tells the reader what you want to tell them. The most powerful tool used to organize the body paper is a topical outline, which serves as your script. Notice that the outline moves through each of the topics in a logical order.  Additionally, we are following the same structure to discuss the pros of each topic as we use to discuss the cons. The reason for this structure is to help the reader to understand where we are going next in our writing.  This outline becomes the blueprint for building our paper. We can make changes as we write, but any change will impact the overall flow.

CONCLUSION & FINDINGS

The conclusion of our paper completes our golden rule when we tell the reader what we already told them. It’s easy, as a reader, to get lost in all of the details of the paper. As a writer, we want to make sure that the readers understand our position, and the conclusion helps us wrap up our paper with a set of closing arguments or final remarks.

Distance learning is a growing consumer market in higher education. Student enrollment in distance learning courses continues to rise, and higher education must continue to change to meet employers demand for educated workers in a changing global economy. Higher education must meet the needs of consumers while developing strategies to overcome the inherent problems of changing learning platforms…

We don’t want to assume that the reader understood all of the details. Therefore, we need to provide a brief summary of what the paper discussed and include our informed opinions of what could or should be done in the future based on what was presented in the paper.

AFTER YOU FINISH YOUR PAPER

Check your sources. A well-written major paper is based on existing literature. Do not plagiarize or steal from others. Appropriately cite your sources in your paper to support your arguments or statements.

Spelling and grammar. It can be difficult to proofread your own work, especially if you have spent considerable time writing and editing the same paper. Use friends, family members, or classmates to help catch any mistakes. Another approach is to read your paper out loud to yourself, as it is written, to help you find writing errors.

Final edits. We edit our paper to improve clarity, which means we take out words that are unnecessary or cloud our main points. Only add words to improve your argument or add clarity to your statements.

Let others read your paper. Ask someone else to read your paper for clarity and simply see if they can follow the logic of your paper. This is good at any stage of the writing process!

Check your style guide: Again, most major papers require that you use a style guide (APA, MLA, or Chicago) which is in place to help the reader understand the structure and content of your paper.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Today, we introduced a strategic approach to writing your term papers. Taking some time to consider the relevance and importance of your topic, as well as existing literature on the subject, will help you make a meaningful contribution with the time and energy you are dedicating to your work. Next, providing an informative title and clear structure to your paper will help to improve clarity and comprehension for the reader. Finally, taking an extra few moments to proofread, edit, and properly cite your work will go a long way in helping you achieve the highest grade possible for your efforts!

*This blog was co-authored by Dr. Amanda Leibovitz and Dr. Jeff Allen.October 15, 2020

Setting Up Your Study Space

Academic Success

For the last few weeks, we’ve discussed figuring out when is best for you to study, and now we’ll be tackling the bigger question of, “How?” A dedicated study space is one of the most valuable assets you can create to boost your productivity, and we each have our own definition of what an ideal study space looks, sounds, and feels like. Moreover, this is largely determined by our personal preferences in combination with the demands of a particular task. This week, we’ll be discussing some key considerations for creating a study space in your home to maximize learning and productivity.

HOW DO YOU STUDY?

Though there may be new challenges if we are also now homeschooling our children or spouses/roommates are not leaving home for work due to COVID-19, we can still benefit from knowing our studying preferences and trying to match them as best we can. To help you figure out the environmental conditions that might work best for you, reflect on the following questions:

When studying has felt easy and productive, what was happening in your immediate environment?

When studying has felt frustrating and unproductive, what was happening in your immediate environment?

As you reflect on these questions, consider the following aspects of your immediate environment:

Location – Home, library, bedroom, kitchen, etc.

Lighting – Bright, fluorescent, natural, dim, etc.

Clothing – Are you more productive when you’re dressed for the “real world” or are your more comfortable in sweatpants?

Noise – Silence, music, conversation, etc.

Space – Do you prefer to spread out or do you prefer keeping study materials stacked?

Posture – Seated upright at a desk vs. lounging on a couch, etc.

Exercises like this help you identify your ideal study space! Importantly, we usually have a considerable degree of control over our study space at home. Remember, our brains are wired to avoid discomfort, so the more appealing we can make our study space, the less resistance we will encounter when it comes time to hit the books! 

WHERE NOT TO CHOOSE

The golden rule of study spaces is that we do NOT study where we relax, rest, or sleep. Why? The neural networks that we want to fire when it’s time to fully engage in studying are diametrically opposed to the neural networks that we want to fire when it’s time to disengage, relax, and sleep. 

Our physical environments can actually signal certain neural networks and prime them for action. In this way, we actively sabotage our productivity when we mix our study and relaxation spaces. If we want our environment to better cue enhanced focus, comprehension, and productivity, we can make this easier by having a specific area of our home that is only for studying (and/or other tasks that require the same level of stimulation and engagement). Similarly, if we find it hard to unwind at the end of the night, we can make it easier to fall asleep if we have a specific area of our home that is only for sleeping.

CLAIMING YOUR NOOK

Even if you live alone, there are likely some “really good reasons” keeping you from claiming a dedicated study area in your living space. Here are some common challenges that can get in the way of creating an appealing and effective study space in the home, along with some possible solutions: 

ROOMMATES

We’re using this as a catchall for anyone who physically lives in your home with you, including kids, spouses, other family members, and/or friends. This is the most common challenge faced when sharing space with others, and it can be most easily addressed by including everyone in your household in establishing set “quiet times,” “study times,” and, “work areas.” Having clear and consistent boundaries and allowing everyone to have a voice – even the kids – can go a long way in helping to create productive pockets of time in the day or night. Setting timers, creating signs (visual aids), and providing frequent reminders can be especially helpful for children!

ELECTRONIC DISTRACTIONS

Yes, we mean social media, other apps, email inboxes, phone calls, and the internet, in general. All of these electronic distractions can be detrimental to your productivity because it’s so easy to get sucked down a rabbit hole and suddenly it’s 2 hours later. Turn OFF your notifications, put your phone on silent, and if the internet is required for an assignment you are completing, ONLY go to relevant websites and frequently check-in to see if you are staying on-task.

NOISE

Some of us might work really well with background noise, but we must always be prepared for outside noises that are distracting. For example, you might be able to focus quite well with your partner watching a show in the other room, but someone speaking on the phone in the same room could be overwhelming. Having a good pair of headphones handy at all times will ensure that you can adapt to any unexpected conditions! Moreover, we recommend over-ear headphones because they are typically better at cancelling out background noise and they also signal to others that you are focused and in “study mode.”

LIGHTING

Lighting has a tremendous impact on our ability to focus and inadequate lighting can cause considerable strain on our eyes. Therefore, lighting should fit your personal needs, and this might include blocking windows, switching lightbulbs, or adding an extra lamp at your workspace.

COMPUTERS

Choosing between a laptop and a desktop computer is a personal choice. Having access to both can be great but is often not feasible. When choosing which computer will best meet your needs, remember that a desktops can be reasonably priced and also anchor you to a specific study space. Alternatively, laptop computers might be more expensive but offer maximum flexibility and adaptability; this may be a benefit if you travel often but it can also be a detriment if you blur the boundaries between study areas and rest areas of your home.

SCHEDULE

Carve out time in your day that is specifically dedicated to studying and keep these appointments with yourself! This will help you fully engage when you need to focus and increase your productivity. For more tips on how to manage your schedule, check out our last three blog posts that cover different strategies for effective scheduling!

FURNITURE

Set up your study space to mirror an actual workspace as best you can; there is a good reason that couches and reclining chairs are not often seen in the workplace! If it’s in your budget, you may want to consider a standing desk (or standing desk addition) if you prefer to not be seated for long periods of time; alternatively, you can intentionally schedule shorter blocks of study time to ensure you are getting up and moving around frequently! If you’re shopping on a budget, garage sales, Craigslist, and apps like NextDoor can be a great place to find “new to you” furniture that will take your study space to the next level.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A study space is the first step you can take toward professionalizing your education. You have made a tremendous investment in time and money to go to school and improve your life and have a greater impact on the lives of others. In order to maximize your return on this investment, you will be required to shift your thinking and also be willing to reorganize your space and time at home. These changes aren’t always easy to do but will greatly enhance your productivity, learning, and ultimately, your success.

*This blog was co-authored by Dr. Amanda Leibovitz and Dr. Jeff Allen.

About Jeff Allen

My mission is to balance the goals of my personal and professional life while continually gaining new knowledge and seeking wisdom. This effort to balance my goals should not dilute the quality of my goals, but should enhance the quality of life for my family, co-workers, friends, and students.
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