12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers

January 18, 2016
Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over and over again I see these phrases in research papers. Every single time I ask students to consider an alternative. Here are a dozen phrases to eliminate in your academic writing and why:

#1: I hope that…

#2:  I believe that…

#3: I feel that…

#4: In my opinion…

Research is not concerned with what we feel, believe or hope. It is also not concerned with our opinions. Research is about posing a substantive question that merits an in-depth investigation and  providing credible evidence to address that question. These phrases may work in reflection papers or journals, but less so in research writing. Omit these touchy-feely phrases and focus on the business of providing evidence to support your discussion.

#5: Clearly…

#6: As you can clearly see…

#7: As this clearly demonstrates…

This can come across as defensive. It may seem like you are implying the reader is an idiot if he or she do not agree with you. Even if you feel that way, refrain from letting the reader know, as it will undoubtedly annoy him or her.

#8: As stated previously…

#9: As I have already mentioned / pointed out/ stated…

#10: As already noted in a previous section of this paper…

These phrases can sound condescending. I have yet to see a case where these phrases (and the remainder of the sentence that follows) add anything useful to the discussion. Keep your writing precise and pithy. Avoid repeating yourself.

#11: The only conclusion is…

#12 The only logical conclusion is…

This can sound arrogant, defensive or both. The underlying message is that anyone who disagrees with you is an imbecile. It makes it sound like you flat out reject the possibility that there could possibly be any other conclusion, which is rarely (if ever) a good idea in research. (Remember the Copernican Revolution.)

Instead of using phrases like these that can make you sound arrogant or defensive (even when that is not your intention), focus instead on writing in a pragmatic and straightforward way that lets the evidence speak for itself.

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Here’s a quick link so you can send this post to a friend:

12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers

https://drsaraheaton.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/12-phrases-to-avoid-in-your-academic-research-papers

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EDER 603.23 – Writing Educational Research

January 2, 2016

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentI am thrilled that I have the opportunity to teach one of my favourite courses again in the Winter semester. Even better, I already know many of the students who are enrolled and I welcome the opportunity to work with this academically strong group again.

Here’s a downloadable .pdf of the course outline:

EDER_603.23_L09_Eaton_W2016 (approved)

This term, all the instructors who will teach the course in the Winter semester worked to collaboratively design a common outline for all sections of the course. We will use a common approach to teaching, assignments and due dates.

The objective of the course is to engage students in thinking about publishing their work in a public format. Here is an example from a previous student of mine in this course who published her first refereed conference paper as a direct result of her work in this course:

Quinn, E. (2015). Designing a professional learning model to support creativity in teaching and learning. Paper presented at the IDEAS: Designing Responsive Pedagogy, Calgary, AB. Retrieved from: http://prism.ucalgary.ca/bitstream/1880/50852/3/IDEAS%202015%20FINAL.pdf

I hope that this example inspires students in the Winter semester to seek publication of their own research in a credible (e.g. peer reviewed) format. Now is an exciting time for graduate students who want to work towards sharing work in a published format. There are more opportunities than ever before for graduate students to learn what it takes to have their work published in conference proceedings or journals.

Here’s a quick link so you can send this post to a friend: EDER 603.23 – Writing Educational Research – http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Jy

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APA Checklist for Term Papers

December 1, 2015

My students often struggle with the finer points of APA formatting and style. While I always encourage them to read the APA manual in detail themselves, with the end of the semester looming, that doesn’t always happen. So, I put together this handy checklist for my students to help them format their paper like a pro.

Feel free to use it yourself or share it with your own students:

Here’s the checklist in .pdf format: APA Checklist for Final Papers.

Here’s a quick link so you can send this post to a friend:

APA Checklist for Term Papers: http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Jd

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EDER 603.21 – Research Methodology in Education (Summer 2015)

July 1, 2015

I get to teach another one of my favourite courses this summer. This one has undergone a facelift recently and now, all the instructors who teach it in the summer will use the same texts, themes and assignments. We have collaboratively developed the course outline and learning tasks. Here’s an overview of what we came up with:

Course Description

This first course in educational research methodologies provides the background necessary to make intelligent decisions around the kinds of research questions that might be asked and the sort(s) of insights and answers particular methods can provide.

Extended Description

This introductory course is designed for graduate students in the first year of their cohort-based Master’s of Education programs. It focuses on various issues, methods, and techniques in educational research. The course includes some of the issues and dilemmas that frame the context for contemporary research, as well as a preliminary consideration of research strategies, methods, and techniques in a manner intended to assist participants in selecting research questions, methods, and strategies for further study. Participants will also be encouraged to approach research articles and reports with a critical perspective and develop some skills and techniques for this kind of close reading. In relation to a subsequent course, EDER 692 Collaboratory of Practice, this first course will have a focus on action research in education.

The field of education sits at a point of intersection of many other domains – including neurology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the many disciplines represented in various subject area specialties. This positioning compels a particular sort of methodological breadth across all programs in education. For that reason, it is not the purpose of the course to develop extensive technical (operational) competence in any particular method of research. Rather, the broader aim is to support an initial understanding of the nature and purpose of various approaches – all of which are useful in understanding educational phenomena, though they may appear to differ substantially.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a proliferation of theories and associated research methodologies in the field of education. A principal aim of the course is to nurture a sort of ‘methodological connoisseurship’ – by interrogating the distinctions and commitments that are associated with various approaches to inquiry rather than by championing specific emphases and approaches. To achieve this end, we should aim for a radical departure from traditional research methods courses that focus on clusters of specific methodologies. The emphasis here will be on the decisions, attitudes, and commitments that take one to a particular approach and that compel certain methods.

The guiding question or attitude is not “How is this perspective or methodology different or wrong?” – which is deemed unproductive as every frame can be critiqued. The orientation is more toward “How is this perspective or methodology right?” To that end, among the simultaneous considerations are: What is the focus (the subject, object, phenomenon, unit of analysis) of interest? Does it change? If so, at what pace? Is it self-transformative and do other agents or phenomena (e.g., educators and researchers) participate in its change?

Course Objectives

  1. To review the range of purposes for, and products of, educational research – including the gathering of empirical data, the application of theory, the generation of theory, and the critique of theory.
  2. To establish a basic literacy in research methodologies. Participants should be able to offer preliminary definitions of principal approaches to research in education and to distinguish among them according to phenomena examined, theoretical commitments, and relevance to their own research interests.
  3. To appreciate that methodological breadth is better articulated in terms of complementarities than conflicts, recognizing that methods are developed in conversation with the phenomena they are intended to ‘investigate.’ As such, any comparison of methods demands a range of questions, including queries on what is being studied, who is doing the studying, the purposes of study, the time frames of the inquiry, etc. Details around technical differences among methods are at best secondary considerations in this conversation.
  4. To interrogate the personal pre-judgments and methodological positionings that frame one’s questions, orient one’s selection of techniques, influence the details one notices, and affect the inferences one draws.
  5. To introduce participants to the issues and challenges of conducting ethical research.

Learner Outcomes

Throughout the course of study students will be able to:

  • Identify viable and interesting research questions and ideas, both in their own potential research endeavours and in the work of published academics (LT1, LT2, LT3)
  • Identify, compare and critique a variety of educational research methodologies based on their primary assumptions and methods (LT1, LT2)
  • Evaluate the relevance of educational research methodologies with special consideration being given to stated research questions and the knowledge being sought (LT1, LT2, LT3)
  • Differentiate between the central tenets of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis strategies with special consideration being given to the strengths, weaknesses and relevance of each in education (LT1, LT2, LT3)
  • Assess the validity of a variety of research methods, both qualitative and quantitative, commonly used in education (LT1, LT2, LT3)
  • Examine and interrogate the relationships between research questions, research methods and interpretation of findings in educational studies (LT1, LT2, LT3)
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of ethical considerations in educational research, particularly with regard to the use of human participants (LT2)
  • Formulate and evaluate their own preliminary research questions in response to both their research interests and professional context. (LT3)
  • Understand how action research applies to educational settings and contexts (LT1, LT3)

Here’s a link to the full course outline: EDER 603 21 Summer 2015 – Eaton

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference

March 19, 2014

My students have been struggling with using active voice in their writing. For some reason, they have learned along the way that passive voice sounds more “grown up” or academic.

This may have been true at one time, but in the 21st century, using active voice in academic research writing is not only appropriate, it is preferable, at least if you follow APA Style (6th edition, p. 77). 

Students who never learned grammar struggle to identify the difference between passive and active voice.

One way to figure out if it is passive or active voice is to ask “Who dunnit?” In passive voice, it is a mystery. We never know who did the action.

In active voice, there’s no mystery. The person, people, animal(s) or things that did the action are always identifiable.

For example:

Example #1: “The man was murdered.”

Question: By whom? (“Who dunnit”?)

Answer: We have no idea. (Mystery).

Voice: Passive.

Compare this to:

Example #2: “Professor Moriarty murdered the man.”

Question: Who dunnit?”

Answer: Professor Moriarty. (No mystery here. The sentence makes it clear.)

Voice: Active.

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be construed as sounding snotty or superior. An example would be, “If you would clean up your messy desk, it would be appreciated.”

Who would appreciate it, exactly?

When I hear the passive voice used in this way, it drives me up the wall. If I don’t know who’s going to appreciate the effort I would go to, what motivation do I have to invest my time and energy into cleaning up the desk?

A kinder, gentler way to say the same thing is, “I would really appreciate it if you would clean up your desk. We have company coming over and I know they’re going to want a tour of the house. Would take a few minutes to tidy up your work area, please?”

Suddenly, I feel motivated to clean the desk. I know who appreciates it and I know why I am being asked. Let the tidying begin!

An example I see frequently from students is, “It is appreciated”, or some variation thereof. An example is, “Dear Dr. Eaton, if you would read over my draft and give me some feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Sounds a bit snotty, don’t you think?

I am often tempted to reply, “Who would appreciate it, exactly?”

In case you’re wondering, I have never actually replied in this way. I simply agree to review their draft. I understand that what they really mean when they use the passive voice in this way is “I appreciate it” or “I would appreciate it.” I can see they are trying to be polite and professional and that matters. But really, if you appreciate something, you can just say it!

Using the active voice makes your meaning clear. You are communicating in a more straight forward way and you sound more confident.

When you use the active voice, your reader appreciates it very much.

Reference:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2010).  (Sixth ed.). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

 

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How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

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Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

 

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Why APA formatting matters

January 15, 2014

Imagine you are buying a new home. You tour around a number of properties. You see one that is messy, distasteful and uninviting. The sales agent says, “Oh, don’t worry, the foundation is strong!” The trained eye may be able to see past the bad presentation, but it takes a lot of mental energy to get past it.

Now imagine you are taken into a home that is clean, neat and perfectly staged. You immediately feel welcome. You are instantly engaged psychologically and emotionally. You want to see more.

APA formatting is to research papers what presenting a clean, neat and well presented home is to selling a property.

Your prof may be able to look past a messy presentation, but it takes more mental energy. You want to be able to say, “Oh, but the foundation of the work is just fine!”  and you want that be enough.

Well, it’s not enough. It sends a message that you don’t care about presentation. You send a message that you don’t give a flying leap that your work is less appealing to read. You may be brilliant, but if the essence of what you show to others messy and disorganized,  it’s less inviting to enter your world and spend time there. Sometimes, students insist that APA formatting inhibits their creativity or individuality. My reply to that is, fine, go be as bizarre and unique as you like in your own writing space — your blog, your journal or whatever.

There’s an element of persuasion involved in writing a research paper. I won’t say sales, because that will undoubtedly offend some of you. But let’s face it. You are trying to “pitch” your ideas. Follow standard practices for presentation and your work is likely to be accepted a whole lot faster than if you insist on doing it your own way. When you are writing a research paper you are trying to persuade someone to read it, like it and possibly judge its value (e.g. accept it for publication or award a grade for it). 

Sometimes I find that drawing comparisons between reality TV and academia helps students make sense the expectations of life in higher education. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching Income Property. I don’t own any income properties and I probably never will, but I find the show fascinating. I see patterns in how projects are completed so they consistently meet the objectives.

Host Scott McGillivray helps home owners turn unfinished or unacceptable suites into beautiful rental properties. He and his crew completely renovate the space. They focus on doing excellent quality construction, electrical and plumbing work that is up to code. The work is inspected and they get feedback from city officials and inspectors before they start working on the finishes.

To me, that’s the the content of research. It needs to be solid, high quality and done well. Getting feedback along the way is important, too.

Once they get the necessary approvals that the job has been done right, they move on to the finishes. They pay attention to the details and ensure the look of the place is consistent with sound design principles that are timeless and impressive. After watching a few episodes of Income Property I noticed that they use very similar approaches for each project.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/670220That’s the presentation of the work. The design principles are outlined by APA, MLA or whatever style guide you use. The format is timeless and paying attention to the details makes it impressive. They follow presentation design principles systematically. Each project is unique, yet they follow standards in a consistent way. It’s almost like there’s a template and yet, every project is individual.

McGillivray consistently points out that doing the construction work properly is non-negotiable. Just like doing good quality research is non-negotiable.

But what gets people to say, “Wow, this is impressive!” are the finishes. Following accepted practices for presentation (which might be interior design for a house, or formatting for a paper) and paying attention to the details are what makes you stand out and be impressive.

For an exemplary end product you need both: quality construction and beautiful finishes. If you have only done only one or the other, you are being sloppy. To do the job right, you need solid construction and a beautiful presentation.

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Share or Tweet this: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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