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Backward Design: Another Methodology for Research Papers

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As an online professor, I receive communications from students in two forms: written weekly discussions and written assignment submissions. Discussions are often used to exchange ideas with the instructor and fellow classmates, while assignment submissions allow the student to delve into the subject matter in greater depth.

For most online students, research papers are the best way to show command of a subject. However, communicating research information in a clear and concise manner may be easier said than done.

Are Research Papers Becoming Obsolete?

In our daily lives, we are bombarded with written information. Newspapers, the internet, emails and social media are now staples in our lives. However, when it comes to printed information, less is more. A catchy title, interesting subject line or pithy phrase might be needed to get you to click and read on.

While each form of social media has various character limits, you may be shocked to learn that among social media, Twitter has by far the lowest maximum count of just 280 characters. Keep in mind these are characters, not words. You only have seconds to capture the reader’s attention, so ideally character counts of 71 to 100 words garner the most attention.

In contrast, research papers are more than a catchy phrase. A research paper analyzes questions and topics, cites relevant sources, and follows a logical argument to a valid conclusion. It is more than an argumentative essay. When you write an essay, you use what you personally know and have thought about a subject.

In contrast, a research paper that is several pages in length presents your interpretation, evaluation or argument. When you write a research paper you build upon what you know about the subject and make a deliberate attempt to find out and include what some experts know, which is often referred to as the previous body of knowledge.

Writing Takes Time

The biggest eye-opener for most students is that writing takes time. Most “great” writers confess to writing multiple drafts of a manuscript before submitting the final product. Research papers are no different. However, most students often wait until the last minute and use rapid-fire techniques to reach the required word count.

As a result, a one-time effort to write a multiple-page research paper often falls short for multiple reasons – the lack of logic and flow, inclusion of unnecessary information, missing transitions, writing from beginning to end in one sitting, using flowery language, failing to define terms, acronyms that are not spelled out on first use and, perhaps worst of all, results that do not address the hypothesis.

What Are the Components of Research Papers?

Most research papers follow a standard template:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literary Review
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Recommendations for future work
  • Conclusion

The biggest false challenge for the novice researcher is trying to write the document one time from beginning to end. To the contrary, Scibbr underscores that writing a research paper is a multi-step process that includes:

  1. Understanding the assignment – Read and re-read the expectations for the research paper.
  2. Choosing a research paper topic – Choose a relevant topic and, if time permits, get approval for the topic in advance of writing it.
  3. Conducting preliminary research Research can include surveys, literary analysis, and collecting observations.
  4. Developing a thesis statement – Also known as a hypothesis, the thesis statement presents an argument to the reader upon which the article will be based.
  5. Creating a research paper outline – This is a roadmap that outlines the order and flow of your paper.
  6. Writing a first draft of the research paper – This is where the writing truly begins to clearly outline ideas in a logical manner.
  7. Writing the introduction – Most papers include an abstract, which is a summary of the document, and an introduction which captures the readers’ attention by explaining the relevance of the topic.
  8. Writing a compelling body of text – Each paragraph should relate to the thesis statement and provide further definition and clarity.
  9. Writing the conclusion – This is the summation of the entire body of work and should definitely address the thesis statement.
  10. Writing the second draft – For most writers, a second draft is not an option, it’s a mandatory part of the writing process to address logic, flow and finality of the research.
  11. The revision process – In many cases multiple revisions are needed to develop a well-written research paper.

While this 11-step process is taught in most class environments, there is an emerging body of thought that is re-thinking how research is planned, outlined and executed. What if, instead of starting with a topic sentence as in point 2 above, the writer starts with a question? In other words, what’s the question that the writer wants to answer? Starting with the thesis/hypothesis may seem backwards, but it’s exactly the methodology to garner more focused results.

Rethinking Research Steps

According to Kent State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, backward design is a “planning framework in which you start with the end in mind, the desired outcomes. You’ll define how you will know if the student has achieved those outcomes.  The term “backward design” actually means the researcher considers the outcomes, the results and the possible conclusion(s) before writing the research.

The backward research method was first described in a 1985 Harvard Business Review article by marketing professor Alan Andreasen. Unlike the traditional process, the backward research method begins with researching, thinking, and discussing how the reader can benefit from the research findings and spending time deciding what the final paper will look like.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Utpal Dholakia explains that “backward research design forces the writer to think deeply about actionable solutions to the problem, and to carefully consider what actions she is, and is not, willing to take. Thinking through what the final report will contain and look like also allows the manager to link the research results to the decision directly.”

Backward curriculum design provides a three-step, systematic approach to designing education projects:

  1. Define a research question that leads to a testable causal hypothesis based on a theoretical rationale.
  2. Choose or design the assessment instruments to test the research hypothesis.
  3. Develop an experimental protocol that will be effective in testing the research hypothesis.

This approach provides a systematic method to develop and produce an evidence-based research design.

Citing Your Work

Regardless of which research approach you use, it’s important to cite your references in a proper manner. A reference gives proper credit to the origin of a thought or discussion. Referencing previous works often varies depending on the topic or genre, so it’s also important to understand how to properly cite your work.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are the most popular forms of citing works in the online classroom environment. Referencing allows you to acknowledge the contribution of other writers and researchers in your work. In order to allow one’s work to build upon others, proper credit is necessary to draw on their ideas, words or research.

Simply put, referencing is the way to give credit to other writers by citing their work. Citations also prevent charges of plagiarism in the writer’s work.

Start with the End in Mind

One of my favorite books is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, written by educator Steven R. Covey. The book offers seven steps to navigate engaging with others. One of the steps, starting with the end in mind, can be applied not only to working with others, but also to writing to engage the reader. Backward research design keeps the reader in mind by considering the outcomes of the research before the writing begins.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). She is the creator of the Professor S.T.E.A.M. Children’s Book Series, which brings tomorrow’s concepts to future leaders today. A global speaker, STE(A)M advocate, and STE(A)M communicator, she holds a B.S. in Meteorology and an M.S. in Meteorology and Water Resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in Public Administration from Nova Southeastern University. She is a faculty member in Transportation and Logistics for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business and specializes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in transportation, education, and technology.

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