Writing a Research Essay

Students in my third-year undergraduate unit Communication Technologies and Change have to prepare a ‘research essay’. As there are many students who are studying in the unit who have not written a research essay (some from the media arts program or the marketing program, for example) I have offered to meet with any student who would like to have a meeting to discus and plan their essay. This means I meet with a large number of students one-on-one. There are 240 students in the unit this semester and there were about 160 last year; I see about a third of these.

In meetings I walk the students through three steps:

  1. Isolating a suitable ‘research problem’ based on your interests and/or work already carried out. This will give a sense of direction and a way to approach how you are going to develop an argument.
  2. Developing this into a draft essay outline/structure with possible examples that you want to explore. This will give us a sense of your overall argument and thus the gaps in your argument.
  3. Lastly, we will then look at what sort of literature review you need to carry out. This will enable you to provide evidence for your claims in the argument and demonstrate your understanding of the course content; And at the same time giving you a direction in terms of carrying out research to ‘fill in’ the gaps.

The ‘research problem’ is constructed from two (sets of) questions. One question faces ‘outwards’ and is asked of the world. The other question faces ‘inwards’ and asks a question of the scholarly field(s). To get the students thinking along the right way I normally prompt them to discus some examples. My unit is very ‘theoretical’ so students are sometimes overwhelmed or feeling anxious, but I encourage them to recognise the practical dimensions of what we discuss in lectures and tutorials. Crucial here are examples or case studies as they enable students to, firstly, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the topic, and, secondly, enables students to show extent and relevance of research (both of these are part of the marking criteria).