The suck-prevention guide is about research essays, but research essays are not the only things you will work on as undergraduate students. Here are some tips for other kinds of assignments.
This isn’t a writing assignment, though you may want to make notes on readings or write down a few questions or things to say in preparation for your seminar. Here are a few ways you can get a decent grade in seminar by participating in discussions:
- Summarize the overall argument of a reading: What is the author’s thesis?
- Identify the arguments and evidence the author uses to support her thesis.
- Give an example of how the argument of the reading applies to a real world situation.
- Ask a question about something specific that you didn’t understand in a reading. Refer to the reading in detail here; don’t just say “I didn’t understand.”
- Take a shot at answering somebody else’s question about the reading.
- If there is more than one reading for that seminar, identify a common theme or argument among the readings. Show how they relate to each other.
- If the readings disagree with each other, explain why you think one is more correct than the others. Refer to specific arguments or evidence in the readings.
- Explain how a specific argument or evidence in the readings challenged an uninformed opinion or bias that you held.
Reflection papers / Reading journals
These are short papers that your profs ask you to write to prove you did the readings. Don’t let the name of the assignment give you the wrong idea: these papers are about the readings, not your personal opinions or feelings. I can’t even tell you how much I don’t care whether or not you agreed with the reading. Not that scholarly articles are never wrong, but they do involve an awful lot of research–if you want to disagree with them, you’ll need to do a similar amount of research. Instead, a reflection paper or reading journal should show that you understood the reading and can relate it to other research or to the real world.
A) These papers are like tiny essays. You should have a thesis.
You don’t need a big, complex, original argument in this case. Rather, you should make an argument about what you have taken away from the readings, what the group of readings for that week/module have in common, what is similar or different about these readings in comparison with previous weeks’/modules’ readings, or how you might apply the arguments from the readings to some other situation or object of study.
B) Use evidence from the readings to support your thesis.
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to say about the readings, you should look to the readings themselves to support your analysis of them. Summarize the overall argument of each reading, and explain how each author uses evidence to support their argument. Then use quotations and paraphrases to compare and contrast the readings, break down and abstract their arguments, and/or support your ideas about what the important take-aways of the readings are or how you can use them to analyze a new situation.
Essay Outlines / Proposals
These ususally come with very specific guidelines, so make sure you read the assignment instructions thoroughly. In general, you will be asked to include the following elements:
A) Research question or problem.
Refer to the “Research” section of the Suck-Prevention guide for instructions on developing a research question.
B) Sources and how you will use them.
This is the part that trips most students up. In this task, you want to do more than just naming and summarizing your sources. You want to explain how you will use them to support your argument. This means identifying the steps you will take to support your thesis (your points of argument) and explaining how each source will help you complete a particular step. For example, you might say: “The article by so-and-so describes such-and-such argument. This will be a premise for my own argument. If this article holds true, then my argument can follow.” Or you might write that you plan to read sources on a particular topic or asking a particular research question, and then describe how their findings might affect your own argument, depending on what the findings are.
Remember that your thesis is based on what you learn from your research. You will develop an argument based on the evidence you find; you will not cherry-pick evidence to support a pre-formed argument.
C) Working thesis statement.
Refer to the “Thesis” section of the guide for instructions on developing a thesis. You will probably get feedback from your prof or TA on how to refine your thesis when you get your graded outline back, so expect to change your thesis statement when you write your complete essay.