How to write a good term paper

Maybe someone will find this story to be obvious and unnecessary, but experience I’ve had while working with students has shown me that it is often not obvious how a term paper, and especially good one, should look like. Here, I offer  you my subjective instructions on how to achieve this…

Why:”What is this and what does it do?”

Besides bringing you extra credits for your grade, term paper is ment for a closer and more detailed insight in a topic, mainly because during lectures there just isn’t enough time to cover all important points, and at the same time writing a term paper is a sort of training in how to write a scientific, research paper in future. When it comes to the most important things – like closer introduction to a topic -I strongly believe that,after writing,the topic should be presented to the rest of the group,in front of all students in order to for each of them to learn something on the subject through a presentation that their colleague will give. (Instruction on how to make good presentation can be found here). Given what the point of writing term papers is, rule No 1 is the following: never write a  a term paper by just taking one text or more, translating them and/or rewriting them (considering that the majority of the literature is in English) with no sense and meaning – that is the best way to write the worst term paper.What you need to do is seep through the literature, read as many texts as possible on a given topic, explain what you read to yourself  and try to comprehend it and, at last, put in words (and on paper) your own understanding of it – that is how writing a good term paper should look like. And never,and I mean never,write about something you don’t understand! No matter how nice these big, fancy words and complicated equations  look like, don’t write them if you don’t understand them. What should you do if there is a lot that you do not understand? Read more literature and consult with your professor! (I noticed that in Serbia, students don’t take the oportunity to consult with their professors and assistants as often as they should)

Term paper structure: Start with yourself

Term papers (and for that matter, scientific research papers as well) resemble the regular essay in structure – which means that introduction, body and conclusion are obligatory.

INTRODUCTION  should present your motivation, essence and perhaps some historic references to the subject. In this case, motivation encloses answers to the following questions :”Why is this important? Why are we researching this topic? What is it that we want to learn?”. That means that if you have chosen stellar structure as a subject of your term paper, what you are actually saying is that comprehension of the stellar structure is very important in helping us understand “how the stars work, how they will evolve and what to expect from them, i.e.we are making a model or selecting specific stellar structure and using it to calculate the radiation spectrum and other characteristics of that particular star and then check whether that matches to the star that we actually observe. THAT is motivation.

BODY is and it should be the central part of the story – like the meat in the sandwich where introduction and conclusion are slices of bread. This is the place to explain everything that you have read and learned. First, you determine a subject, which means that you should either list the main characteristics and explain them afterwards in your text, or introduce your basic idea and terms you will be using in explaining the chosen subject. However, that doesn’t mean that you should start too broady and begin with the creation of the world and the Universe. Focus in, and start with the information that will actually matter in the topic you are covering, and leave out the ones that are common knowledge. If we take already mentioned example of the stellar structure, it is not necessary to start with Newton’s laws and explain what gravitation is, although it is unquestionably important for evolution and the structure of a star – you are allowed to simply assume that everybody knows that. It would be OK to introduce essential terms, but merely as a brief explanation, for example the notion of hydrostatic equilibrium which is important for the stability of a star, or short story about star formation, their expected radiation…Just keep it short – one paragraph is enough, and then you can move on to the details of your selected subject. Furthermore, if you are introducing a new term or abbreviation, don’t skip the explanation. If you use some of the equasions, make sure that each symbol is explained. Don’t just pile up information with no sense and orded, because you will end up with the work resembling Frankenstein’s monster. Try  to follow a logical sequence, line up one story after another in  logical order. Term paper should be an understandable digestion of a certain topic, and because of  that you should put yourself in the shoes of a fellow student/colleague who is not introduced to that particular subject, but who would like to read about it, and always ask yourself would he or she understand it. Make your papers something that you would like to read, that you would find interesting. Just remember all the poorly written textbooks that you have encountered, ones that were difficult to understand, full of puzzling words and scarry equasions and footnotes, which must have been iritating, difficult to read and even more lo learn from. Keep that experience in mind and do your best to avoid making the same mistakes when writing your paper. Think of  your term paper as one of the textbook chapters, and don’t think about your grade or your professors opinion on it – think about the readers such as yourself,  people who want to read and understand your text. If you write your paper considering those things you can never go wrong. Always start with yourself and your idea of how a good term paper or good presentation should look like, and all the things that you would want to read and see. Last thing you want is to write a text or presentation that is boring even for you. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to start with yourself.

Finally, we come to the CONCLUSION part the paper. Experience and practice have shown (to me, at least) that rarely anyone pays due attention to the conclusion. Term papers written by students usually end abruptly, like a movie without an epilogue where in a split secund you see only whether the heroe has survived or not, thank you very much, the end – there is no riding off into a sunset. Just a sudden ending, with a clifhanger. Without a conclusion, the story remains unfinished. It is true that the conclusion is the most difficult part of your work. However, it does not need to have some groundbreaking conclusions or revelations. No. Sometimes a conclusion can simply be digested version of a topic, a recap, with pointing out the most important parts of it. Let’s face it – after reading any book or  a scientific paper you will most likely forget the details, all those hundreds of pages that you’ve read, even if they are from your favourite book. You will remember the mainframe, most important features, a scene or two, a sentence here and there. The same goes for your term paper – you will write five pages at least, filled with a bunch of details, but the essence of your work can be contained in three to four sentences. And exactly that is what you should write in the conclusion, basically the things that you want the readers or listeners to remember, although they will forget the majority of it. You can write hundreds of pages on the stellar structure, but the key information that you want people to remember is, for example, the fact that the Sun has a core in which termonuclear reaction of hydrogen fusing into to helium takes place, that it has hydrogen envelope through which the energy created in the core is transported, that it is surrounded with the atmosphere, photosphere being the lowest layer from which the radiation streams freely, i.e. when we look at the Sun, we are actually looking at its photosphere. The end. These are the things you want people to remember, these are the facts you want to extract in the conclusion as the main points and repeat them as many times as possible, in order for it to stick with the reader. Besides that, you can repeat something from the introduction, for example the reasons why you consider this topic to be important. Of course, extra credits are given for each interdependently made conclusion (when it comes to scientific work, this is obligatory).

As a final thought on term paper structure,  I remind you that each of these parts is as important as the other one, because they all serve a purpose and deserve equal attention. So don’t concentrate all your creative energy on the midsection/body of the work – distribute it evenly on introduction and conclusion as well.

References

Every good term paper is required to have a list of references, which means that you have to name every source of information used. Nowadays Internet offers you litteraly everything, but if you are able to find some books which you can use as a refernce always chose them rather than the World Wide Web.

Of course, if you want to do it like professionals do, the main (and only acceptable!) source of information are scientific papers, because  books often contain errors, obsolete information etc. It goes without saying that scientific texts are a serious literature and they are –in majority of cases – difficult to comprehend if you are a student. However, while you may not understand the most of it, which should not frighten you, read the introduction and the conclusion or the discussion, because these parts are usually fairly understandable, contain the very essence of the work and they can be a good source of additional references.

Concering the resources on the Internet, it’s all fine and well, and it is just normal that you should list it as a regular source at the end of your work, but be careful when it comes to trust you put in information found on some of the sites. Although Wikipedia is wastly popular and most popular encyclopedia, it basically isn’t as reliable as a source, because it can be changed by anyone and everyone. The good news is that the list of real references is usually given at the bottom of the page, which makes Wikipedia useful as a starting point, but don’t use it for citations – look at the references listed on Wikipedia and cite those sources directly. Besides already mentioned, all university sites are valid and very useful sources. You can recognize them by the suffix .edu. The easiest and maybe the best way to obtain information from these sites is to google your subject, and add the word “lecture” (I advise you to google in English because university sites from the universities where the English is official language are the most common on the Net). For example, google “stellar structure lecture”, and you will find lectures given by university professors on that particular subject, which means that the information are reliable in the majority of cases, and also they are designed primarily for students.

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