How to Outline a Research Paper: a Step-by-Step Guide

Like shooting darts in the dark, writing your paper without an outline is the academic equivalent of wishful attempts of hitting the bull’s eye without visualizing your target. Without an outline, you may leave gaps in your arguments or sort your essay ideas poorly, resulting in unarticulated thoughts within your paper. 

An outline is a visual aid that, like a map, connects ideas within your paper to gauge the flow of your arguments and also to check for areas that require supplementary information. The outline thus makes your writing process easier, overcoming various stumbling blocks that may deter your efforts down the road. 

Read on to discover steps for developing a research paper outline and various parts of a paper. 

How to structure a research paper: parts of a research paper 

An outline is a crucial tool for your research phase. Some of the key steps for writing an outline include:

  1. Select your research topic

Topic selection is always the initial step for essay writing. Your selected topic determines the extent of research required for your topic and also dictates the ease of writing your essay.

When selecting a topic, ensure that it piques your interest, to gain an internal drive to complete your paper. Also, ensure that there are enough secondary materials to support various claims within your paper, avoiding baseless claims. 

  1. Conduct extensive research

After settling on a topic, interact with a vast range of materials relating to the ideas within your topic. A great starting point for your research could be Wikipedia and various referencing tools. After searching your main key phrase, these tools will guide you on relevant books and indicate more sources in the references section. 

Conversely, consult your librarian on the materials related to your topic, easing the task of research. 

  1. Sort various related ideas

A good research paper should not only exhaust various claims but also address counterarguments on various claims. The paper should also be organized to achieve flow, transitioning from your claims and linking various arguments to lead to your conclusion.

For this, group related ideas and determine the transitions you could employ when shifting focus from one claim to the next. 

  1. Group ideas into relevant sections

Next, sort out ideas into specific sections while determining the appropriate subheading if your paper will span multiple paragraphs. For the case of large research papers, we recommend that you outline each chapter separately to avoid confusion. 

  1. Organize your research paper paragraphs

Finally, organize our ideas into paragraphs while including all the essential components of the paragraph. 

Research paper paragraph structure

The structure of your paragraphs is also essential in achieving the coherence of arguments within your paper. Unlike free writing, structured paragraphs keep you on track with your paper, ensuring that you don’t over-dwell on an idea.

The format of your paragraph contains a topic sentence, supporting evidence, a conclusion, and a transition to the next claim. 

Topic sentence – this sentence is akin to your introduction but for the idea contained within a paragraph. This sentence allows a reader to skim through your paper and get an overall gist of your arguments. 

The supporting evidence – this section of your paragraph tackles the evidence and analysis of the support of your claim. 

Conclusion – this sentence sums up the claims in your paragraph and links your paragraph to the next. 

Structure of a research paper

What are the parts of a research paper? The research paper outline may vary depending on the level of study and guidelines from your tutor. High school research papers are simpler in structure and comprise an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

Conversely, college research papers have more sections with chapters such as the title page, the abstract, the literature review, the introduction, the methods, the results, the discussion, and a conclusion. 

Research paper outline template

When outlining a college paper, we recommend a piecemeal approach with an outline for every chapter. The high school outline may however be tackled as a unit to ensure the flow and coherence of claims within your paper. 

We recommend that you use the full-sentence outline to avoid confusion as you translate your outline into a paper. Your outline could thus appear as:

Title: The impact of homework on students’ performance

  1. Introduction

1.1. Background information: Secondary students are reported to have an average of 23 hours of homework weekly (infomania, 2022).

1.2. Thesis: Too much homework is detrimental to performance. 

  1. Body

2.1. Paragraph 1

2.1.1. Topic sentence: Homework takes up time for relaxation and may cause mental exhaustion. Mental exhaustion limits the capacity to focus in subsequent study sessions. 

2.1.2. Support: students in Kirwa’s (1987) research performed poorly when denied breaks. 

2.1.3. Conclusion: limited time off books may result in a lack of concentration, thus resulting in low comprehension and recall. 

2.2. Paragraph 2

2.2.1. Topic sentence: Students may compromise their sleep cycle in a bid to meet deadlines and avoid consequences. 

2.2.2. Support: Sleep deficit results in a compromised capacity to study (sleepy guy, 2019).

2.2.3. Conclusion: compromised sleep patterns may inspire stress and also result in lower focus and concentration. 

2.3. Paragraph 3

2.3.1. Topic sentence: This may result in stress, motivating students to cheat to complete the assignment. 

2.3.2. Support: if they cheat, they gain nothing from the assignment.

2.3.3. Conclusion: students may resolve to other means to avoid harsh consequences. 

  • Conclusion

3.1. Restatement of thesis: Too much homework is detrimental to student performance.

3.2. Highlight key argument: triggers behaviors that cause stress and compromised focus and concentration. Results in unproductive study sessions and overall poor performance. 

3.3. Recommendation: limit homework to sensible hours, allowing students ample time to relax.

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