The Research Assignment

Writing an academic research paper can be one of the most valuable and exciting experiences of your college career. Seeing your ideas take shape on paper and your words join the ongoing conversations about the subject matter—taking your place in the discourse community of a subject area—can be a thrilling moment of triumph. You become a junior scholar in the community of scholars and writers who discuss the issues, ideas, literature, and thinkers of the discipline.

Why do students struggle with research assignments? For many students, the research assignment often starts with a topic their instructor assigns or one they select after long hours in the library or online, reading a lot of articles or books. These students then struggle to stitch together blocks of information like a patchwork quilt, each block with its own pattern and meaning. Students may wonder why they are rewriting existing information or telling the instructor what he or she already knows. They may ask whether they can add anything new to the discussion of the topic.

Your instructor assigns a research paper in hopes of teaching you how to join the intellectual conversations that define the ideas in that discipline. Participating in those conversations means asking questions that arise from your own individual curiosity and intellectual temperament and then seeking answers through both your own thinking and the thinking of others. In this way, you can contribute meaningfully to the existing scholarship in that subject area. You are then creating a research space for yourself and for other researchers who may follow you.

Perhaps understanding why the ability to write a research paper is a worthwhile addition to your academic skills will give you a new perspective on the research assignment.

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