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Guidelines for Academic Papers at the STM

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When a Research Paper Is Assigned

This guide describes the accepted protocols governing submission of academic papers at the STM

A Sound Approach to Research Assignments

Writing a research paper is not an easy task; and, many students honestly dread such assignments. If that is your experience at the STM, perhaps some simple changes are in order. What follows is a recipe for improving one's approach to research. Adopting these strategies could help you embrace - and even enjoy - research assignments.

  • Allow sufficient time - Theological research is a process of inquiry requiring time to flourish. If your paper is due on Friday, and you begin your work on the prior Monday, you may get a passing grade, but the process will be pure drudgery, and you'll only be cheating yourself.
  • Set the proper goal - Maintaining good grades is important; however, preoccupation with your anticipated grade can have a stifling effect upon your research. If you genuinely make learning (about your chosen topic) your principal goal, your experience of research assignments just might be transformed.
  • Choose your topic wisely - You will spend many hours working on research assignments. Choosing a topic that truly fascinates you will be your best defense against weariness and boredom.
  • Grasp the major issues first - If you select a topic about which you have limited knowledge, you'll need to deepen your understanding before you can logically proceed. One way of doing so is to consult a source that provides an overview of the topic, e.g., an introductory article in a reliable subject encyclopedia. Also, never underestimate the value of discussion with professors and/or peers. As your knowledge grows so will your clarity regarding the precise aspect of your topic that you'll be investigating. For that reason, narrowing of your topic is to be expected.
  • Be open to a challenge - You may feel inclined to choose a familiar topic about which you have already formed strong opinions. If you do so, resist the urge to limit your sources only to those supporting your presuppositions. Research can only stretch us intellectually if we embrace the challenge.
  • Develop probing questions - Whatever your chosen topic, imagine having the opportunity to speak for thirty minutes with one of the world's greatest experts in that subject area. You would likely prepare a series of questions in advance, questions representing your deepest curiosity, so as to make best use of your limited time. Now, consider that the authors of the books and articles you'll be consulting during your research are (or should be) experts on your topic. It is wise to adopt a similar preparatory approach.
  • Consult a variety of authoritative sources - Not all published works are created equal. And, special discernment is called for in the Google age. A helpful guide for evaluating Internet sources is available here. The reference librarian in the Theology and Ministry Library (TML) can also help you identify trustworthy sources.
  • Gather more sources than you're likely to use - When searching in pertinent databases, the utility of (possible) sources you discover there is not always immediately apparent. In fact, you are likely to weed out a fair number of books and articles that fail to address your research question(s). Plan for that.
  • "Interview" your sources - The research questions you prepare should ultimately be posed to the potential sources you've gathered. Nimbleness will serve you well here. Recall the hypothetical scenario above wherein you have a chance to interview a renowned expert in your subject. Suppose the answer that expert gives to your very first question dramatically alters your understanding of the topic. You may well discover that your remaining questions no longer seem relevant in light of this new and deeper understanding. Rejoice and be glad for you have learned! Now, rewrite your other questions to accommodate that learning. (Note: If a book or article fails substantively to address your questions, set it aside. Your time is precious.)
  • Develop a research claim based upon what you've learned - Your research claim will take shape as you learn from your sources. Often, as noted above, your initial topic will narrow considerably as your understanding matures and becomes more intricate.
  • Support your research claim by writing about what you've learned - If you sit down to write after having truly learned, you will write from a position of empowerment. Your research claim, which will typically be stated in your opening or topic sentence, can be supported by recounting your method of inquiry and what you have learned from your sources.