A Guide for Effective Academic Writing and Research
From my experience as an online instructor, most classes involve a lot of writing, from discussion board postings to written assignments, and many instructors may expect that you will anchor your work in these assignments with credible sources or research. Students often believe that conducting research for an assignment equates to finding sources of information and then taking direct quotes from those sources and adding them to a paper as a means of creating a response. Finding relevant information is not the end goal for academic writing, instead it’s how you use this information to form your own ideas that matters.
Before you begin the process of research, it is important to develop a clear understanding of the purpose of each assignment. This will prevent you from spending unnecessary time scouring the online library databases or the Internet for sources of information. The most effective starting point is to develop an outline and utilize keywords from the assignment instructions. For example, are you asked to analyze a concept, synthesize research, develop new ideas or solutions to problem, or just gather research? Often the assignments are designed as a means of demonstrating cognitive abilities, which is most closely associated with the phrase, critical thinking.
By demonstrating critical thinking skills you show how you took a concept, worked through it, and developed your own thoughts about the subject. This is helpful for your work as a student because many of your assignments do not require “doing research” and collecting information – you are processing information and translating it in your own, unique way. This is especially true for your discussion board postings – you will find that your responses will be much more meaningful when they are anchored with scholarly or credible sources. Other students are also more likely to reply to your contributions when there is substance provided with your post because they have more to discuss with you than responding to a message that only consists of a personal opinion or general statement.
Once you have established the expectations of your assignment, the next step is to look for sources (such as journal articles) with a focused approach based on your understanding of the reason for collecting information. As a critical thinker, you are actively involved in the process of learning and you will analyze sources of information to determine if they are credible, relevant, and supportive of your analysis. The best place to begin is with an online library database, which most schools provide access to for their students.
There are three popular databases that offer a broad collection of subjects and include EBSCOhost, Gale PowerSearch, and ProQuest. These databases carry an average of 10,000 periodicals each. Once you are logged onto one of these databases choose the advanced search feature and select the peer-reviewed option. This will ensure that the results list includes highly credible articles that have been reviewed by a panel of peers within the subject field. From the results list you can further narrow your search by:
• Subject category
• Date of publication
• Type of publication
In addition to finding journal articles within the search results list you are also likely to find research studies. These reports present a very effective method of learning more about the current thinking in a particular field because the researcher will include a background check (called a literature review) first by examining current research in the field. Towards the end of the research report or article you’ll usually find a discussion and results section that indicates how this study addressed a specific research problem, contributed new thinking to the field, or resulted in additional areas of recommended research. At the very end of the article you’ll also find a list of sources, or references used by the researcher, and that is another method of finding credible sources for your assignment.
If you do choose to utilize the Internet for sources of information, try the advanced features offered by many search engines so you can control the results received. (Google also offers Google Scholar, which provides links to academic sources) Your goal is to find credible sources, which means you need to know about the author of the website or article so that you can assess their credentials and expertise, along with the date of the information published and the intended audience of the information. You’ll want to be careful utilizing information repository websites such as Wikipedia as a source for your assignment because these are highly edited collections of information.
As you process the assignment instructions and search for information, consider the development of your voice. Keep in mind that if you are not required to simply report on facts you can develop an original position about the subject. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to develop your voice and spark your critical thinking skills:
• What is it that I want to say about this subject?
• What are my thoughts about the topic after I have read more about it?
• Why is this topic important to me, this assignment, and my course?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with this topic?
As you decide what you want to state about the topic, it is then time to formulate your position. Start with what you know and what you believe about the topic. From that point consider how you would address the keywords used in the assignment instructions. For example, if the instructions indicate that you are to analyze the topic, are you prepared now to formulate an analysis? The process of reviewing current research causes you to question why you believe what you believe and increases your knowledge of the subject, which helps to create a new outcome or approach for this topic in the form of a position.
At this point you can begin to fill in your outline through reflection and writing. Organize your thoughts according to what you know and what you have learned. One of the best methods of organizing your notes is through the use of a mind map. This is a visual representation of how your thoughts are connected and it is put in a flowchart format. An example of a well-designed free resource is MindMeister, which is an online software program that allows users to create interactive mind maps. To begin using this program, you will need to sign up for the basic or free account. This resource will allow you to organize your notes according to themes, topics, subjects, or keywords. As you review the sources you’ve saved you can add any important points you have written down or highlighted.
Once all of your thoughts and notes have been organized, you can then begin the narrative writing process. Always begin with your analysis, your thoughts, and your ideas. As you further develop the response, include information from your sources. There are two important elements of effective academic writing to keep in mind:
• Avoid over-utilizing your sources. The purpose is to demonstrate your critical thinking and analysis of the subject, occasionally supported by information from your sources. When I’m reviewing an assignment I would rather read more of your analysis than quotes from your sources.
• Avoid utilizing numerous direct quotes. This is an area of development for many students I have worked with because they’ll use direct quotes as a means of completing their assignment – often to increase the word count. If you include information you have paraphrased from your sources (with a properly formatted in-text citation), this demonstrates an ability to work with the information instead of simply using the information.
As a student you can conduct research by gathering information; however, you’ll find that most online instructors will emphasize the need to do something more than report facts and information. You will be expected to demonstrate critical thinking and analysis skills with the development of your assignments, which includes discussion question responses and written assignments. The most effective method of preparing for your assignments is through a focused process of planning, searching, formulating, organizing and writing. Because you are actively involved in this process you have an ability to learn something new and more importantly, contribute new ideas about the subject or topic.
What areas of research are challenging for you? What aspects do you enjoy most? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
By Dr. Bruce Johnson
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