Organizing Your Research

Stacks of notes, books, and course materials in front of a blank computer screen may cause a moment of writer's block as you go to organize your paper, but there is no need to panic. Instead, organizing your paper will give you a sense of control and allow you to better integrate your ideas as you start to write.

Read on for more specific guidelines on organizing!

Categorize

Organizing your paper can be a daunting task if you begin too late, so organizing a paper should take place during the reading and note-taking process. As you read and take notes, make sure to group your data into self-contained categories. These categories will help you to build the structure of your paper.

Take, for example, a paper about children's education and the quantity of television children watch.  Some categories may be the following:

  • Amount of television children watch (by population, age, gender, etc.)
  • Behaviors or issues linked to television watching (obesity, ADHD, etc.)
  • Outcomes linked to television watching (performance in school, expected income, etc.)
  • Factors influencing school performance (parent involvement, study time, etc.)

The list above holds some clear themes that may emerge you as read through the literature.  It is sometimes a challenge to know what information to group together into a category. Sources that share similar data, support one another, or bring about similar concerns may be a good place to start looking for such such categories. 

For example, let's say you had three sources that had the following information:

  • The average American youth spends 900 hours in school over the course of a school year; the average American youth watches 1500 hours of television a year (Herr, 2001).
  • "According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids in the United States watch about 4 hours of TV a day - even though the AAP guidelines say children older than 2 should watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 2).
  • "According to AAP (2007) guidelines, children under age 2 should have no screen time (TV, DVDs or videotapes, computers, or video games) at all. During the first 2 years, a critical time for brain development, TV can get in the way of exploring, learning, and spending time interacting and playing with parents and others, which helps young children develop the skills they need to grow cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 9).

With these three ideas, you might group them under this category: Amount of television children watch.

Each of these source quotations or paraphrases supports that category. For each group of information, repeat this process to group similar categories together. Then you can move on to order the information you gather.

Order

Once you have read your sources, taken notes, and grouped your information by category, the next step is to read critically, evaluate your sources, determine your thesis statement, and decide the best order in which to present your research. Note that as you begin to narrow your topic or focus, you will find some sources are not relevant.  That is fine! Do not try to squeeze every source mentioning "children" and "television" into your paper.

Let's say you have come up with the following categories from the sources you have read:

  • Children watch more than the recommended amount of television.
  • The more television children watch, the less likely they are to study.
  • Certain groups of children watch more television than others.
  • Students whose grades are poor in high school are 56% less likely to graduate from college.
  • Poor performance in middle school correlates to poor high school performance.

You will want the order of your material to advance and prove your thesis. As mentioned in our thesis handout, every thesis needs to be capable of advancement. Let's assume that your thesis is Children who watch more than the recommended amount of television are less likely to receive a college education. In this case, it seems that you will want to start off by showing that there is a problem, and then giving examples of that problem and its consequences.

The best order for these categories would be the following:

  1. Children watch more than the recommended amount of television.
  2. Certain groups of children watch more television than others.
  3. The more television children watch, the less likely they are to study.
  4. Poor performance in middle school correlates to poor high school performance
  5. Students whose grades are poor in high school are 56% less likely to graduate from college.

The way a paper is organized is largely the result of the logical and causal relationships between the categories or topics apparent in the research. In other words, each category's placement is specifically chosen so that it is the result of the previous theme and able to contribute to the next, as the previous example shows.  It is often a good practice to save your strongest argument or evidence until the end of the paper and build up to it. Using careful organization to advance your thesis will help guide your reader to your conclusion! 

 

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