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How to Teach Writing a Research Paper in Nine Steps

After over 20 years of teaching college English, the author loves to share tips, teaching plans, and information about the profession.

Students love having some choice about what they write.

Students love having some choice about what they write.

Research Essay Teaching

Having taught research essays for over 20 years, I've learned teaching students to write a research essay is difficult! Most students are not familiar with putting a lot of information together in a longer project. Frequently, they feel overwhelmed just thinking about starting their work, which leads them to procrastinate and, ultimately, have a very hard time finishing the project.

I've learned that teaching research essays is easier for me and my students when I break the longer essay into smaller parts. We work on one part at a time and then put everything together and write a conclusion.

Additionally, I've learned that students love to be able to have some choice about what they write and they spend a great deal more time writing on a topic they feel passionately about.

However, I've also learned that too much choice can make it very hard for them to decide on a topic, so I either give them a list of Research Topics or ask them to choose a topic in a specific area. The most successful research assignment I've created is having students research and evaluate a nonprofit organization.

Problem of Child Poverty

Philanthropy Project Research Paper

Honestly, I didn't know until I got started on this topic the wide variety of causes supported by nonprofit organizations! I tell my students that whatever problem they think needs solving probably has at least one nonprofit working on a solution. Their job is to find that nonprofit, research what they are doing, and evaluate whether they think this work is effective. What I like about this project is that it allows the students to investigate one topic from many different angles, using the same sorts of essays (Explaining, Problem Solution, Analysis, and Evaluation) that they've learned in the first half of the course.

At the end of the course, I have short oral presentations. I tell students to imagine that we are a corporation and each of them has been given one nonprofit to evaluate so that our company can decide where we are going to donate that year. Their job is not necessarily to promote their own nonprofit but rather to accurately explain whether they think they deserve our funds. Each student is given an (imaginary) budget of $1,000 to give away to one or more of our organizations with the following rules:

  • You can't give to your own organization.
  • You must give it all away.
  • You must spend in increments of $100.

As the reports conclude, everyone decides where their money will go and I tally the results, announcing the winners to the class through our online platform, Canvas. Even though the budgets are imaginary, students often are quite concerned about how to spend their money well, and sometimes there is furious scratching out and revision as they change their minds when the bell rings.

Nonprofit Research Paper Organization

I have students write this 10-page paper in five parts:

  • Introduction (Interest the reader in the problem)
  • Problem overview (Exploratory essay on the problem the Non-Profit tries to solve)
  • Organization overview (Explaining essay about the organization and how it solves the problem)
  • Evaluation (Evaluation Essay in which the student chooses criteria and evaluates the effectiveness of that organization)
  • Conclusion (Student makes a final judgment and persuades the reader about their conclusions concerning this organization)

We do peer editing on each of the sections and discuss transitions between sections as well as strategies for making each part of the essay effective.

1. Gathering Research

Students often need guidance in researching. I take them to our university library and help them use our library search engines.

In doing non-profit research papers, I have my students look at the websites of the charities and find research papers about the problems the non-profits try to solve. I also help them find government and international sources of statistics on problems such as poverty and sex trafficking. This particular paper allows me to expose students to a wide variety of library data and information sources and strategies for searching. I often hold a few classes in the library so that students can work with me and our librarians through a variety of databases. If you don't have a library, you could do a similar exercise by simply letting students bring a laptop, tablet, or phone to class so that they can get help in finding sources.

Some students find a professor or other expert to interview about the subject. My students also try to interview someone involved in the organization in person, by phone, or by email. When possible, I suggest they visit the organization if they have a location in our town. I like the fact that this sort of paper gives students a variety of research tools. They also investigate the financial data on the non-profit from Charity Navigator, Givewell, and Better Business Bureau.

2. Writing Annotated Bibliography

After they gather their sources, I have them write an annotated bibliography of their research using the M.L.A. Bibliographical format. At our university, the annotated bibliography is used as one of the five papers in our course and I ask students to do a thorough job of summary and response so that they will carefully read and understand their sources and be ready to write their paper.

Researching Poverty

3. Research Checkup Worksheets

To solve the problem of students procrastinating until the end, I periodically have "checkup" worksheets" that show me where they are in the process of writing. You are welcome to adapt these for your own class. Following this worksheet are my actual lesson plans.

Getting Started on Research Paper: Choosing a Topic and Audience

Read through each section of the “How to Write a Research Essay” and then fill out the answers to help you start organizing your own essay.

  1. My essay will probably be _________________________pages.
  2. I will give the instructor access to the sources I use by ______________
  3. The audience for my paper will be ____________________________

4. Introduction Worksheet

To guide students in thinking carefully about how they will develop each section of the essay, I have them first write out their plans and give them some template ideas for how to structure each section. Here is my worksheet that prepares them to write an introduction:


  1. I will interest the reader by ______________________
  2. The techniques I will use in the opening of the paper are _____________
  3. I will make the reader understand this issue is important by ________
  4. After reading my introduction, the reader will know ____________
  5. My claim statement or question will be __________________

Introduction ideas:

  1. Story Frame (opening and conclusion)
  2. Scenario
  3. Your visit observation
  4. Your experience in the organization
  5. Vivid description of problem or organization
  6. Statistics about the problem
  7. Startling facts about the problem
  8. Conversation with client or person who works in an organization


  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What common ground do you have with the audience? What does the audience know about this issue?
  3. What do you want your audience to know after reading your paper?
  4. How will you present the problem/issue vividly? And describe the subject so the reader knows it well.

5. Exploring the Problem Worksheet

After students have written their introduction, I have them write a section that explores the problem their organization is seeking to solve. In this section, they will explain the history of this problem and the efforts to solve it which will help them and their readers understand their nonprofit organization's efforts in context.

Exploratory Essay Worksheet: Look over the information on the Exploratory essay. There are a lot of different aspects that you can cover, and how you handle this exploratory essay depends on your subject and the information you have gathered.

  1. What is the issue/problem/need that you will be exploring?____________________
  2. How can you best explore different opinions on this issue? (you can discuss opinions about the cause of the problem, ideas about how to solve the problem, and/or history about how people have viewed the problem and tried to solve it)
  3. What are the three positions on this issue?
  4. What would be a one-sentence claim statement which would summarize these different views?
  5. What evidence do you have that will help you write about these positions?
  6. How does your organization fit into the positions described in your exploratory essay?

In-class Discussion on Exploring the Problem

In small groups of people working on organizations that try to solve the same sort of problem, or as a whole class, we work through these questions to try to see the complexity of solving problems. For whole-class discussions, I usually use the example of the problems of Poverty, Homelessness, or Teenage Pregnancy.

  1. What is the need/problem?
  2. What is the history of this problem?
  3. What are the different views on this cause?
  4. What are the different ways people have tried to solve this problem?
  5. What has worked and what has not?
  6. How does your organization fit into the discussion about this problem?

The questions below are designed to help you think through the history of this discussion part.

  1. Audience: who is interested in this issue? Are there identifiable groups that have different views/interests?
  2. Constraints: What circumstances, beliefs, attitudes, current events, or life experiences influence the way people think about this issue?
  3. What common ground do people have on this topic/problem?
  4. Exigence: What happened to cause this problem/need? Is this a new problem or a recurring one?

6. Explaining Worksheet

The next section of the paper is an "Explaining" essay (which students have probably written many times before). After students have had a chance to look carefully at their Non-Profit Organization's website or other materials, they can work on the following assignment in or out of class.

Organization Overview Worksheet

  1. What is the history of the organization? Who started it and why?
  2. How has the organization changed over time?
  3. What is the philosophy of the organization? How do they view the problem? The cause of the problem? The solution?
  4. What are the goals? What programs do they have to reach those goals?
  5. Who are the clients?
  6. Who are the volunteers?
  7. What sort of community support do they have?
  8. How are they funded? Who supports this organization?
  9. How does the organization evaluate its own effectiveness?
  10. How does your organization fit into the positions outlined in your exploratory essay?

Transition Sample Sentence: While some groups do______to solve the problem of _______. ________(organization) tries to solve the problem by ___________

Compassion Sponsor and Child Meet

7. Evaluation Worksheet

What I really love about writing this research paper is that by the time students have gotten to this crucial section, the evaluation of the organization, they are well prepared to make an excellent judgment. They have already researched and written about the problem, how other people have tried to solve the problem, and what their organization does in trying to help. In this three-to-four-page section, their job is to explain whether what their nonprofit does is effective or not.

The following exercise, "Using Chains of Reason to Develop Lines of Argument for Paper." is an idea I've adapted from our textbook, Perspectives in Argument by Nancy Wood.

Evaluation (In-Class Exercise-this could also be done virtually):

  1. Write a 100-word synthesis of your thinking and research on your issue at this point.
  2. Exchange your synthesis with a classmate. Read each other’s syntheses, and write a thought-provoking question that asks for additional information or clarification.
  3. Return papers to one another. Read the question and write a two to three-sentence response.
  4. Continue to exchange papers, read responses, and ask another question until the time is called.
  5. When time is up, read over the questions and answers.
  6. Write: what surprised you? What do you need to research more? Where do you think your answers were the strongest?

8. Criteria for Evaluating a Non-Profit

Although my students have generally written evaluation papers before, I find that they are initially unsure of how to evaluate a nonprofit. I explain to them that they are always evaluating things they encounter in their daily life and that the key to evaluation is listing ways an organization would be considered successful or effective. I usually have them write a list on their own or with a partner for about 5-10 minutes, then have them share their lists while I write them on the board. Here is a sample list from my class:

  1. Is an organization successful at meeting its own goals?
  2. Does their website match what they actually do?
  3. What is the attitude of workers towards clients/the public?
  4. How do they use funds? What percentage of funds goes to programs vs. fund-raising or administrative costs.
  5. How do authorities in that area view the organization?
  6. How well does the organization educate the public on their issue?
  7. How well known are their services? Do they advertise their services effectively?
  8. You can evaluate their goals, their philosophy, and their “take” on the problem as to whether you think it is the right one.
  9. Evaluate their chosen solution compared to other solutions that are proposed.
  10. How good are their facilities?
  11. How helpful are their services? How do clients feel about the organization?
  12. Do they have the support of the community?
  13. How many people do they serve compared to how many need the service?
  14. Do their services overlap with another organization or government program?
  15. Does this organization have an "end game" for when they would have solved the problem and what they would do about it?
  16. Do they have limits on who will qualify for services? Are these restrictions good ones?
  17. Is there evidence of lives changed?
  18. Do they follow excellent practices for that type of organization?

9. Conclusion Worksheet

I always encourage students to conclude a paper rather than just repeat. Conclusions in this essay are easy and are based on what group they have chosen for their audience. I tell them that three excellent audience possibilities are potential donors (should you give), the organization itself (explaining how they can improve), or other college students (is this an organization you should support?). One other possibility I give them is to write a conclusion based on what they want to do for this organization (many students decide they want to give or volunteer). Here are some questions I have them answer in order to start brainstorming ideas for their conclusion:

  1. Pick four to six of the criteria from the brainstormed list that works for your organization.
  2. Write a sentence or two of your evaluation of your organization based on each of those criteria.
  3. What is your personal response to this organization? (learn, feel, want to do?)
  4. Would you urge other college students to get involved? Why or why not?
  5. What suggestion do you have for this organization to be better?
  6. What story affected you the most?
  7. What do you want your readers to take away from your paper?

Evaluation by Compassion Sponsored Child

Why I Love Teaching Researching Nonprofits

After I had taught nonprofit research essays for several years, a colleague at my university received a grant to run a course that did a very similar activity but had money to award the nonprofit that won the class vote. While I admit I wish I had discovered that grant possibility first, I have to say that one of the unexpected benefits of teaching this class is that many of my students have been inspired to give or volunteer to one of the nonprofits we've researched. Even better, they often tell me that they are much better equipped after completing this project to know how to evaluate not only a charity organization but also businesses where they are applying for a job. All in all, I have to say that this research activity makes the dreaded research paper much more enjoyable for students and fulfilling for the instructor!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 02, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by randomcreative. When I was first teaching this course, I looked everywhere for some help on how to make it work, but I didn't find much and the book didn't give any help in structuring the course. So I decided to give my ideas to helpfully give other new instructors some information.

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 01, 2011:

Great resource for this topic! I love how you broke everything down. It's so important for students to understand all of the steps required for a large project like this.