Study Skills/Writing Term Papers

Skills edit

In Helping Your Teen-Age Student, Dr. Marvin Cohn says that students often leap prematurely into a topic and engage in hasty, laborious note-taking that does not contribute to the finished paper. Sampling a variety of books and taking time to think about possible research projects should come before writing, he says. It is clearly best to know, before deciding on a topic, that ample sources are available for a given topic. While surveying available sources, the student should take note of which sources seem useful and also which ones do not. That prevents the student from looking at undesirable sources twice. A book that seems interesting should be noted by its title, author, location, and some description – a paragraph about one of its chapters, for example. When there is more than one book available on the same subject, the student might compare the books on the basis of some common feature. For example, with a set of George Washington biographies the student can compare the accounts of Washington’s Winter at Valley Forge. Much can be learned about a book by reading less than one of its pages – for example, how well the author makes points, organizes material, and uses language clearly. As a rule, it is best for the student, early in the project, to find one especially good source and rely on that as a guide throughout.

The reading can be described in terms of three activities, which students generally undertake in the following order.

1. overview – getting a general idea of a subject by reading encyclopedia articles or by skimming through books, especially books that deal with the subject in a general way

2. study – reading books and articles the way students read their textbooks, using not just introductory texts but ones that deal with specific aspects of the topic

3. fact-finding – searching for details, answers to questions that have been raised by the research

Taking notes in the student’s own words is protection from accidental plagiarism. Also, rephrasing is good because it makes the student think about the text. Copying quotations from authors is the exception to the rule. It is agreed that the paper should have no more quotations than are necessary, but that does not mean, necessarily, that notes should not have many quotations. As the collection of notes increases, it’s natural, says Dr. Cohn, for the student to start writing observations in the form of sentences and perhaps paragraphs.

As reading and note-taking continues, a set of main points may occur to the student, in which case they should be jotted down. Perhaps later they will be written in a different order. The list is the origin of the outline. Its writing may be compared with the growth of a young tree. From the main points are derived two or more lesser points, and from the lesser points two or more details, and so on. The general rule that a new task should not be started with immediately after finishing one applies here. It is best to stop writing after finishing work on an outline. More recent books on study mention the mind map (below). A student might make one of these these informal diagrams to help in developing ideas. They can be useful as a method of studying information on a topic before outlining.

A paper is only a series of paragraphs, and learning how to write a paragraph well adds much to the quality of a writer’s work. In English writing, most paragraphs begin with a sentence that has the paragraph’s main idea. Occasionally, a paragraph’s main idea is found in its final sentence. The main idea of the paragraph is supported by its other sentences. The simple rule of not writing sentences or paragraphs that are too long makes the paper more readable, and the writer should know when to divide lengthy sentences and paragraphs into smaller ones. Unless it is needed, a technical or unusual word should be replaced with a common word, or at least explained in the writing.

The research and writing process edit

The research project cannot be divided into a series of clearly-defined steps. There is overlap. In a student’s survey of possible resources, there is some note-taking, if only to identify books and articles. Note-taking often gives way to students writing observations of their own, perhaps in writing sentences or paragraphs. With the increase of material comes a need to organize it as an outline, or to develop ideas by making a mind map, before starting on an outline. The outline begins as a simple list of main points. Outlines can be written different ways, consisting of phrases, sentences, or connected sentences. Whereas some will write a first draft based on a fairly informal outline, others with keep adding details to the outline until is basically the first draft. In writing the first draft, some will write parts quickly, without much attention to spelling and grammar, and slow down at other parts to write finished prose. Others will use formal language from start to finish. With all papers, it is best to re-read the work carefully and spot all errors, no matter how small. When the paper is graded, little errors add up. A traditional method of proofreading is to put the paper away for a few days, then read it with “new eyes.”

An exercise for the beginner edit

In How to Double Your Child’s Grades in School, author Eugene Schwartz presents an exercise intended to make the transition from writing short essays to writing a first term paper less frustrating. Instead of the usual bibliography, he suggests working with no more than two or three easily-read books. When the student becomes familiar with them, the student answers a series of questions, including the question of which ideas should be the main points to be made, and also which points should be excluded from the brief paper. Students are advised to begin the paper by making an especially good point and to write a good final sentence, these established before work on the first draft. The exercise consists of eight questions.