Writing a research paper proposal can be overwhelming. You may ask yourself, “How do I start? What do I write? What does it look like?”
I understand. I’ve been there. Whenever we start writing a new kind of document we can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it write. The problem is that there isn’t just one way to write a research paper proposal. It just depends on who is going to read it.
If you are going to submit a proposal to a conference, pay attention to the “call for papers” to see what they want. They may say a topic that the conference or panel is on and they may give you a word count, but often they won’t give more details than that. They simple expect for you to know what you’re doing. The problem is, there is still more than one way to do it.
In this episode of the podcast, “Preparing to Write a Research Paper Proposal”, I talk to one of my college classes about 4 things they can do to help format their proposals. This isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s a way that makes sense. It’s at least a starting point.
Step 1: Introduce the Topic
This goes without saying, doesn’t it? Like most forms of writing, especially anything nonfiction or research-based, you should probably start by explaining the topic. This isn’t just a formality though.
The purpose of introducing the topic is to establish the context that your upcoming research will fall under. If you are investigating a social issue (for example), explain the problem, give background, and prepare the reader to hear what comes next.
Step 2: Summarize Your Preliminary Research
Sometimes a proposal will be to submit research that is already complete, but in many situations it’s the first step. Your proposal should summarize some of the literature (research) on the topic to establish that this is a topic that needs to be researched and that there is something there to research.
I like to tell my students to find 3 layers of specificity. In short, narrow down your research topic to 3 categories. This not only helps your project to stay focused, it also gives you three directions to take your research. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say that you want to research the effectiveness of online classes. That may feel specific, but it really isn’t. You could narrow it down by identifying the subject of the class and the group that is taking the class. You could narrow it down to (1) the effectiveness of online classes for (2) high school students (3) studying English. You have three topics you could research to help you on your narrow topic. You can find resources on the effectiveness of online classes, high school students taking online classes, and online English courses. If you’re lucky, you might even find a source that is exactly what you’re looking for, but if you don’t you have three categories you can focus on. You would then be the one to bring all the ideas together.
Step 3: Identify the Problem or Area that Needs Researched
After you have introduced the topic and shown that there is some research available, identify what you intend to research. That can take many forms. This could look like a research question or just a statement like, “This researcher intends to investigate whether or not online classes are an effective alternative to traditional high school classes for students taking high school English.”
Step 4: State What You Think You’ll Find
A good research project requires having an open mind. Remember, your job isn’t to prove anything to anybody. Your job is to conduct research and report your findings. This requires an open mind, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea of what you’re going to find.
In science, we call this a hypothesis. State what you think the research will show based on your preliminary research.
Sample Research Paper Proposal
Here is a sample research paper proposal I put together for my students:
Some researchers believe that reading scores for K-12 students could be improved by implementing mobile devices into the classroom. This would be an important finding because students across the country consistently score lower than their peers in other countries. At the high school where I teach, I have observed students scoring years below their grade level. This makes reading common high school texts without teacher help almost impossible. Could technology be used to help students improve their reading scores in preparation for graduation and transitioning to college reading?
In 2011, Conway and Amberson found that implementing laptops into schools could help students with dyslexia and other reading disorders (Conway and Amberson). Not all students with low reading scores have reading disorders, but the same practice could be applied as an accommodation to help them improve their reading inside and outside of the classroom. Later, Clary, Kigotho, and Barros-Torning found many e-learning technologies that teachers could use to improve literacy in their classrooms (Clary, Kigotho, and Barros-Torning). They focused on the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as online forums and learning management systems, but they also reported the need to develop new pedagogies for implementing these tools. These tools could be used to increase student engagement within the classroom and extend it beyond the classroom to create a support system for students after they have left campus. Other researchers have found that e-readers and other mobile devices can be effectively used as a tool to promote reading literacy (Biancarosa & Griffiths).
Despite K-12 student scores, some students still graduate and matriculate to the college classroom where they have difficulty transitioning because they simply do not read on a high enough level to understand their textbooks or their instructors. This paper will research the validity of these researchers’ claims and investigate whether or not additional research will support the use of e-learning technologies such as e-readers and mobile devices to improve reading literacy in K-12 students.
Now let’s break it down. In the first paragraph, I identify the topic. In the second paragraph, I summarize my preliminary research. In the final paragraph, I identify the topic to be researched and state what I expect to find. It’s a simple three paragraph essay, if you will, but it has a specific agenda and structure.
This is maybe a little long for some proposals and maybe a little short for others. As you prepare to write your own proposals, make sure to pay attention to what the conference or assignment is asking for and do that. Pay attention to specific requirements they may have, but when all else fails try something like these four steps.
Good luck writing!