Tips for Students Writing Research Psychology Papers

Maham Hasan (MA Social and Psychological Research Student, University of the Witwatersrand)

Although there are no hard and fast rules to acing a research exam, I can provide a few tips based on personal experience. The following points are intended to help you write an effective research paper or prepare for a research exam. By using the following checklist and links, students can make sure they have covered their bases for research assignments.

Purpose of the assignment: Read carefully what is being asked of you in your assignment outline. Make a list of or highlight the information that you have been provided regarding the topic and the instructions listed. By doing so, you are making sure you know what is expected of you.

Research purpose: This is also known as the thesis statement. Once you have understood the purpose of your assignment, you will know whether a research question needs to be formulated or if one is already provided for you. Your assignment’s purpose usually assists in formulating and answering the question, but this is not for all cases. If you are creating a research proposal, then you need to formulate your own research question by looking at the gaps in literature. These gaps can usually be found by a future recommendations section in the literature readings. For more tips on how to refine a research question, visit this link.

Cover your literature bases: If you are running short on time and need a good idea of research in the area, start by looking at work done by seminal authors (these are the lead researchers on the topic), current work done in the area, and any systematic reviews (such as those found online in the Cochrane Library). To make sure the work you are reading may be relevant to your purpose or topic, always read the abstract, introduction and conclusion. For more tips, visit the research guide at USC Library on, or visit our Chair, Ms. Lynn Hendrick’s site on for more guidance.

Excel is your friend: Use excel to copy and paste important passages as you read. By doing this, you do not lose time going back to relook at an argument or point made in a paper. Remember to document where the passage is from including the page number, as it helps contextualize your ideas and assists with your referencing.

Reference management software saves time! If I could ever go back to help myself I would definitely advise myself to download Zotero. It is a free reference manager that not only automatically creates references for documents you load onto it, but it can change your citation to any reference style and import it into word.

Time management: The reality is that research takes time. It requires pre-planning and reading which can take a few hours a day for a few days. So, manage your time wisely.

Additional tips for you:

  • To make sure you understand your purpose and argument, try write out the basis of the question and your argument in words a 10-year old would understand. If you can do that then you can write an effective paper!
  • Do not present one-sided arguments in your literature review.
  • When creating your argument or considering your research design, keep referring to your research question and ask yourself “Does this help answer my question?”
  • Keep it simple. Do not over-complicate an argument or approach. Usually the simple way is the best way.
  • Write concisely and try not to be repetitive.
  • Write your introduction and abstract last, so that you know how to introduce or explain your assignment to your audience in a short and precise way.
  • Always consider limitations to your argument, as well as any ethical concerns.

Lastly, remember that you can always refer to prescribed textbooks on research designs and methodologies as guidelines. Whether you are preparing for a written exam or writing a research paper for submission, it is instrumental to understand the theories taught in class regarding the processes of research and the types of methodologies. Your prescribed textbooks can assist with how to design a research question, conduct a literature review or even discuss a methodology section. For a good book for guideline purposes, consider looking at John Creswell’s 4th edition of Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches.

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