A term paper is a common format of academic writing psychology students encounter in college. It is a research paper of significant size (normally up to 6000 words) that is assigned in the beginning of a term to be written over its duration, either individually or in a group. It should contain original research and detailed discussion of its subject matter, providing evidence in support of the writer’s point.
Writing a good term paper will account for a large portion of your grade, so it pays to put every effort into it. In this psychology term paper writing guide, we will discuss the proper order of organizing your work on such assignments.
Selecting a Topic
Unlike essays whose topics are normally simply assigned to you, you can usually choose a topic of your term paper yourself (albeit in collaboration with your tutor). As you are going to spend the better part of the next term working on it, it pays to tread carefully here. Don’t choose a topic without thinking, hoping to find the necessary information later on – when the time comes, you may find out that the job is too challenging, and it will be too late to ask your tutor to change the topic.
- Try finding a topic of personal interest. It is not just that writing about something that fascinates you is easier – the quality of your writing is always directly proportional to how interested you are in the subject matter. At this point you probably won’t be able to single out a specific topic, so try to at least mark a general area (e.g., symptoms and treatment of depression);
- If you cannot think of something specific, try reviewing available literature using an online database (e.g., PsycInfo). This may inspire you to narrow the topic down to something more manageable and will show what sources you can base your research on;
- Narrow the topic down but don’t overdo it, or you risk ending up with a topic without relevant sources to use;
- Check if your topic contains a direct or implied question. You don’t write a report on someone else’s research, you are expected to do individual work and come up to your own conclusions, and for that you need to have a question to begin with. E.g., “Symptoms of a Histrionic Personality Disorder” is not a very good topic as it calls for a simple enumeration of symptoms. “Potential of Using Gestalt Therapy in Treatment of Histrionic Personality Disorder” is better, because it implies a question: Is gestalt therapy effective for that purpose?
- Discuss the topic with your tutor. If the topic you’ve come up with is off, he will be able to point it out and suggest alterations that will make it easier to write and to find the necessary information.
In the end, you should get a topic that is both sufficiently broad to provide a lot of source materials to build upon and narrow enough to let you exhaustively study it within your word limit. Here are some examples:
Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
- Situational Variables of Human Behaviors as Seen in Stanford Prison Experiment;
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder: Causes of Misdiagnosis and Ways to Prevent It;
- Comparative Efficiency of Treatments for Reactive Attachment Disorder in Children;
- Externalizing and Extroversion: Distinctions and Similarities;
- Conditioning Theory in Explaining Placebo Effect.
Doing Your Research
As a psychology researcher, you should learn to read and analyze sources critically for at least three reasons:
- To create valuable work you have to be well-versed in the subject matter;
- Through learning how to notice weak spots in papers of other researchers you will become better prepared to finding them in your writing, thus turning into a critical reader of your own work;
- Not all sources are equally valuable, and you have to learn how to differentiate between them to avoid relying too much on untrustworthy information.
Remember – more sources is not always better by definition. From the abundance of information on the subject you should only choose what will be helpful in establishing the truth.
Here are some ways to find information sources:
- Reading list. If you are given one by your tutor, start with it – it likely contains the most pertinent information on the subject;
- Online databases. PsycInfo and PubMed are the two most widely databases used in the field of psychology. More general ones like Google Scholar and Academic Search Premier can also be of help;
- Reference sections. Start with your textbook and go through all the sources you’ve found by other means.
Here are the questions you should ask yourself when reading and analyzing every information source you deal with:
- Does the author have an agenda? Every paper is written to advance a certain point of view, but in some cases, an author may be blinded by his goal to do so and intentionally twist, conceal or fabricate evidence to promote his position. If the author has an obvious or implicit bias, it greatly decreases the value of the work as evidence.
- Is the author’s methodology sound? Students are often tempted to skip the Methodology section of a research paper, but it is very important in establishing the value of evidence. Check if the author’s methods are appropriate and relevant for the question he tries to answer.
- Is the author’s statistical analysis appropriate? Again, you may be tempted to skip this section (especially if you haven’t yet taken a statistics course), but even those without special training can glean important insights from statistical data. Does this information corroborate the author’s hypothesis? Are his conclusions logical?
- What is the amount of evidence supporting the conclusion? In psychology, just like in many other disciplines, empirical studies often report contradictory results. That is why a single study or experiment doesn’t automatically become evidence unless it is replicated multiple times. And if an author makes sweeping generalizations at a slightest provocation, he is likely to be biased.
- Is this information evidence? The fact that that author states something doesn’t make it evidence. Moreover, different disciplines have different standards of what is to be considered evidence. For example, in social sciences logical and rhetorical conclusions are treated as viable evidence. In psychology, however, these are considered are nothing more than personal opinions that have no value without being corroborated by empirical evidence.
Writing Your Psychology Term Paper
Psychology writing has many similarities to what you have previously learned in expository writing: you are expected to study an idea, investigate the available evidence, produce a thesis, support it with convincing and well-founded evidence and be ready to objections and corrections from your audience.
However, there are differences. Psychology writing is based on the standards of American Psychological Association publication style. In addition to a host of formatting requirements (which you can learn on case-by-case basis using the publication manual), there are three general principles: clarity, conciseness and accuracy. As a result, psychology writing is supposed to be easy to read even for non-experts, straightforward so as to eliminate potential misunderstandings and devoid of redundancies. The main goal of psychology writing is information transfer with minimal distractions.
A thesis statement is a short summary of the main point of your paper (e.g., the claim you want to prove or disprove), usually limited to a single sentence.
Thesis statement is different from topic – a topic is a general area of your investigation. A thesis statement is a claim or a viewpoint related to the topic. For example, “Correlation between time of diagnosis and necessary depression treatment methods” is a topic. “Early diagnosis of depression may prevent the need for medication-based treatment” is a thesis statement.
Sometimes you have a basic idea of what you are going to write about and what you will try to prove before you do any research; sometimes you will have to review available literature before you can formulate your idea. Having an idea for thesis statement to begin with is useful because it limits the scope of your searches and motivates you to proceed.
However, don’t feel obliged to stick to it. Remember, you are a researcher, and your thesis should be supportable by empirical evidence. If you start finding evidence to the contrary, change your thesis statement accordingly.
A quality thesis statement is based on existing research done by other people but goes further than just summarizing and reiterating their findings. It should contain something new, something that is not immediately apparent from the topic itself. For example, “Bipolar disorder severely influences patient’s quality of life” is so obvious that writing a term paper about it has no sense.
Here are some good ideas for thesis statements:
- Criticize an existing theory or hypothesis or offer your own that is better supported by your findings;
- Combine information from several topics that aren’t usually connected with each other to come to unexpected conclusions about them;
- Compare and contrast two or more theories on the subject and make a conclusion which one has more basis in empirical data;
- Point out a correlation between factors or a trend in statistical data that wasn’t noticed by other researchers.
Outline is a plan of your paper: here you jot down its basic structure, make notes of what you should mention at each moment and how to connect points with each other. It should contain the following:
- Main points of your argument;
- Evidence you will use to back up each point;
- How you address potential objections to each point;
- How you explain evidence that contradicts your points;
- Everything you will use to tie parts of the paper together: transition words and phrases, subtitles, etc.
Body of the paper is where you say what you intended to say. Usually students consider it the main part of their work, but it is only true for those who haven’t done proper research. If you’ve carefully studied your sources, made notes and prepared a detailed outline, writing the body paragraphs turns into simple putting of already prepared content onto paper in an orderly form.
It means that you should proceed in a uniform fashion: introduce a new point – provide empirical evidence to support it – address potential contradictions and objections – recap the point and relate it to the thesis statement of the paper or a current section.
There are a few other principles you should follow:
- Consider your audience to be intelligent novices in the field of psychology. That is, assume that they have knowledge of general psychology but aren’t well-read in any particular branch of the science. Don’t explain the most basic terminology but provide the necessary background when you get deeper into specifics.
- Be as concise as possible. The fewer words you use, the better. However, don’t strive to achieve complete brevity in your first draft – that is what revision is for.
- Avoid emotionally charged language. You are writing a scientific paper, not a novel or poetry. Make your words as neutral and objective as possible.
- Make sure you define the most important terms relevant to your field of study or introduce them in context that makes their meaning immediately obvious. If a term has more than one meaning or connotation, specify which one you use in your work (e.g. “Aggression, for the purposes of this work, will be defined as any instance of unmotivated physical attack of one person upon another”).
- Don’t overload your writing with direct quotations. Remember that opinions of other scholars aren’t considered to be evidence in psychology. You should concentrate on documented facts and results of observations, not on what other people write about them. Try to rephrase quotations so that they are integrated into the flow of text more smoothly.
- Don’t use footnotes and endnotes. According to APA style guide, if information is important enough for understanding a point, it should be introduced directly into the body of the paper. If it isn’t that important, it shouldn’t be used altogether.
- Don’t write in first person. Phrases “I think” or “I suppose” shouldn’t be used in scientific writing.
Revising Your Paper: Steps Our Academic Writers Make
The first draft never turns out the way you’ve envisioned your paper. When you’ve finished writing the last line your work isn’t yet done, because revision is just as important a part of it as research and writing per se.
- If you have time to spare, leave your term paper alone for at least 24 hours. Immediately after finishing a paper you are too used to it and tend to skim over entire phrases, missing mistakes and flaws.
- Ask for a second opinion. Get somebody whom you trust to read your paper and ask for constructive criticism. It may be anybody – a friend, a relative, a roommate, a peer from the Writing Center. You don’t necessarily have to follow all the recommendations and comments he makes, but they will give you a much-needed perspective on your work.
- Check your paper for clarity. Read it as if you were seeing it for the first time and ask yourself if you would understand it were it written by somebody else.
- Check logical connections. Do your arguments naturally follow from one another? Do they really prove what they are supposed to be proving?
- Eliminate unnecessary words. Psychology values succinct writing, so remove every word, sentence, paragraph or even a section if it doesn’t move your point forward.
- Read your paper aloud. It is an old yet effective method for singling out fragments that don’t work, sound wrong or don’t serve any purpose;
- Don’t hesitate to rewrite huge swathes of your paper if you feel it will improve it;
- Check your paper for consistency with the APA style guide.
Only practice can teach you how to write excellent psychology papers consistently, but with this guide, you will have sufficient groundwork to get you started.