Instructing students on how to write clear, coherent and readable research papers while enjoying the process.
By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT
Last month, we discussed making research presentations using visual aids such as PowerPoint or other vehicles. This month, we will focus on ways you can help your students write their research papers. Some of the ideas may even be personally useful.
Often the hardest challenge for many students – and sometimes with us as well – is starting to write. One way to help students is to encourage them to write paragraphs as they take notes or as they come up with ideas. They do not need to know what will happen to the paragraph; just writing a coherent paragraph – or part of a coherent paragraph – helps to encourage writing and clarify their thinking. Since many of us think out loud and many of us think by typing since we are so good with computers, this method helps us overcome the challenge of facing a blank page. It also avoids writing the beginning of a paper first, since it is often the hardest to write and best done last. Just writing any part of a paper overcomes writer’s block and helps a student – or anyone else – express their thoughts.
Encourage them to put specific ideas and statistics or quotes into the paragraph and list the source, either in APA or MLA format, so your students create building blocks of the paper. The more building blocks they create as they conduct their research, the easier it will be to develop a coherent paper. Examining the paragraphs will help them notice what is missing and what they have covered so far. Writing the transitions and connections between paragraphs can come later.
A second way in which you can help students involves talking about the audience for their research project or paper. Often, faculty members do not make the audience clear to the students. Should the audience be just you as their teacher or you and the members of the class or you and other faculty members in the program? I tell my undergraduate students their audience is any undergraduate program student while my graduate students write for students in their program as well. Additionally, I include all program faculty members in the audience. It helps students determine what acronyms they should explain and what assumptions they can make about the background of a potential reader. In some circumstances such as final papers in the master’s program, I add the notion of relevant industry professionals who often attend Final Presentations of the Advanced Research Seminar, which is the industry-related thesis project.
Providing information about the audience also helps students select the appropriate voice to use in writing. Should the paper be in the third person objective point of view? Can they use a second person friendly chatty tone or should they use “I” and “me” since it is their research? Your school may have its guidelines or you may set them for your course. At NYU, I remind students that there is no “I” in research and they should write their papers in the third person objective point of view, the most appropriate for research papers. It also helps them discover some distance from the topic and avoid emotional reactions to the ideas and practices they examined.
Another aspect of helping them write clear and coherent papers is advice about form or format. While we no longer need to stipulate font type and size – and if you do, I encourage you to be very specific – we may want to request cover sheets with the paper title, student name, course name, date, and your name. This practice enables us to turn all the cover pages over and just read papers not knowing who wrote them. It can help us be more objective in our evaluation and focus on reading the paper and not the person who wrote it. (For more information, you can read previous Mayo’s Clinic articles, “Rubrics for Writing” and “Objectively Evaluating Writing Assignments.”) For the same reason, I also ask students to include page numbers at the bottom of the page but not their name.
You may also want to provide some guidance about structure:
- Should the paper have an introduction?
- Should the paper include an executive summary?
- Should the introduction and summary (or conclusion) have a heading separate from the text or just be part of one coherent paper?
- What form of a bibliography do you want? Annotated? Alphabetical? Chronological with most recent first? By category (primary source, secondary source)?
The last part of writing a good paper involves editing it carefully. The process takes discipline but is often easier if written in parts that need to be connected and shaped into a coherent paper. Adding transitional sentences at the end of paragraphs and reviewing the argument’s logic involves editing and helps students notice when the tone of a paragraph or the tense – past or present – has changed. When they see it, they can make improvements. Hopefully, it also spurs them to think about structure.
Organizing the paper in a coherent sequence also requires some thought and your advice can help a lot. Should the paper follow the structure of:
- Research questions
- Literature findings
- Research methods
- Limitations and future research possibilities
Or should it be simpler if there were no applied research methods – such as interviews, observations or surveys – then the structure could be:
- Interest in the topic and its importance
- Insights or findings
- Future research possibilities
Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.