Writing a Research Paper, Part 2: Intermediate Assignments

After assigning the research paper (addressed in this blog post), you should have mini-classes to guide your students through the assignment.  First, teach them how to choose an appropriate topic.

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a good topic might seem self-explanatory to the teacher, but students will benefit from some basic pointers.

  • The topic shouldn’t be too broad. Students tend to pick overly broad topics. For example, “World War II,” “The Civil War,” or “The History of Science” are all too broad. If a student wants to write about one of these topics, they should choose a narrower topic within the broader topic: For example, “The Holocaust,” “The Battle of Gettysburg,” or “The Life of Sir Isaac Newton” are better, narrower topics.
  • The topic shouldn’t be too narrow. This is usually not much of a problem, but students will sometimes pick topics that are so narrow they can hardly find any sources.
  • The topic should be something the student is interested in. If your students can’t decide on a topic, see what they’re interested in. Everyone has a passion for something. Not all interests would work well as a research paper topic, but some could. For example, if a student plans to be a farmer, perhaps he could do a paper on modern farming practices.

Students should write out their purpose statements for their papers. This will help them pick appropriate sources and know what reading to do. An example of a purpose statement for a paper on modern farming practices could be “The purpose of this paper is to examine some modern farming practices and how they increase farming production.”

Gather Sources

Before students gather their sources, tell them how many sources and which type of sources you expect. I allow online sources, but require at least half of the sources be books or print periodicals. I don’t allow elementary-level encyclopedias such as World Book. Part of writing a research paper is learning how to gather and summarize information, and elementary-level encyclopedias have already gathered and summarized the information for your students.

  • Skim-read before writing. After gathering sources, students should read and skim in light of their purpose statements and begin taking notes on the parts of their sources that will be most useful. This helps solidify the material in their minds, and gives a better idea of how they should approach their papers.
  • Take notes and cite sources. While taking notes, students should note the source and page number of direct quotes or paraphrases they plan to use in their paper. Noting this information now will make it much easier to compile their citations and Works Cited page later. Students should begin compiling their working bibliography as a list of sources in a notebook or on several index cards.

Write an Outline

Outlines help the student think logically. Outlines help your students logically sequence their paper. If a student is writing a paper on the history of agriculture, a chronological sequence might work best. But other subjects could be arranged topically or sequentially.

Outlines give the structure of the paper. Outlines allow your students to structure their papers before they begin writing and gives them a helpful guide to follow while they write. You should focus on the content and structure of your student’s outlines, not whether they are perfectly formatted.

Make sure students know how to construct an outline. You can give them an outline handout or have a mini-class on outlines.

Write First Draft

After writing an acceptable outline, they should write their first draft. The first draft should be 90-95% of the way to the final draft. The majority of the text should be written, but the title page, in-text citations, and Works Cited page don’t need to be done yet.

Having students write a first draft allows them to focus on the content of their paper rather than worrying about the finer details of grammar, sentence structure, and citing sources.

Edit First Draft

After completing the first draft, students should polish it into their final paper. Here are a few questions students should ask as they edit:

  • Did I cover my topic well?
  • Do my sentences and paragraphs make sense?
  • Have I cited my sources correctly?
  • Do I have the correct number of words?
  • Have I used correct grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure?
  • Does my paper follow my teacher’s requirements about margins and line-spacing?
  • Do I have my title page, outline page, body pages, and Works Cited pages formatted correctly?

These are just some of the more important things students should check for. Kendall Meyers wrote a more comprehensive checklist that you could find useful.

Grading Research Papers

Once students have turned in their masterpieces, it’s up to you to grade them. Use the rubric you gave your students to guide you. Here are a few tips for effective grading:

  • Don’t grade while you are tired. If you are tired you will tend to be less thorough than you should be.
  • Don’t over-grade. The purpose of a research paper is for your students to write a comprehensive and logical explanation of a topic. Primarily students should be graded on how well they achieved this purpose, not on their grammar. Of course, you can still deduct points if grammar and sentence structure are atrocious, but that should not be your focus.
  • Grade a few papers at a time. This is not always possible; I know from experience that teachers have busy schedules. But it’s easy to grade the first several papers strictly, then slack off as you tire.
  • Try to be as objective as possible. A rubric will help, but objectivity can still be difficult. One thing that can help is to consciously think about your feelings toward your students. Then deal with any possible bias to avoid unfair grading.


If you plan ahead and tackle each of these steps one at a time, you and students can have a challenging but fulfilling experience.

The next article in this series will talk about plagiarism, how to properly cite sources, and how to write a Works Cited page.

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