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“The Research Essay” by Steven D. Krause

“Intros and Outros” provided by Lumen Learning

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  • Define purpose and audience as they apply to research.
  • Compare a formal and working outline.
  • Discuss ways to move beyond the five-paragraph format.
  • Recognize the challenges presented by creating a good conclusion.

The Research Essay

by Steven D. Krause

A “Research Essay” or a “Research Project” instead of a “Research Paper”

First, while teachers assign and students write essays in college classes that are commonly called “research papers,” there is no clear consensus on the definition of a research paper.  This is because the definition of “research” differs from field to field, and even between instructors within the same discipline teaching the same course.

Second, while the papers we tend to call “research papers” do indeed include research, most other kinds of college writing require at least some research as well.

A third reason has to do with the connotations of the word “paper” versus the word “essay.” For me, “paper” suggests something static, concrete, routine, and uninteresting—think of the negative connotations of the term bureaucratic “paperwork,” or the policing mechanism of “showing your papers” to the authorities.  On the other hand, the word “essay” has more positive connotations:  dynamic, flexible, unique, and creative.  The definitions of essay in dictionaries I have examined include terms like “attempt,” “endeavor,” and “a try.”   As a writer, I would much rather work on something that was a dynamic and creative endeavor rather than a static and routine document.  My hope is that you, as a student and a writer, feel the same way.

This chapter is about writing a research essay.  While I cannot offer you exact guidelines of how to do this for each and every situation where you will be asked to write such a paper or essay, I can provide you with the general guidelines and advice you’ll need to successfully complete these sorts of writing assignments.

Getting Ready:  Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Research Essay

By this point, you probably have done some combination of the following things:

  • Thought about different kinds of evidence to support your research;
  • Been to the library and the internet to gather evidence;
  • Developed an annotated bibliography for your evidence;
  • Written and revised a working thesis for your research;
  • Critically analyzed and written about key pieces of your evidence;
  • Considered the reasons for disagreeing and questioning the premise of your working thesis; and
  • Categorized and evaluated your evidence.

In other words, you already have been working on your research essay through the process of research writing.

But before diving into writing a research essay, you need to take a moment to ask yourself, your colleagues, and your teacher some important questions about the nature of your project.

  • What is the specific assignment?

It is crucial to consider the teacher’s directions and assignment for your research essay.  The teacher’s specific directions will in large part determine what you are required to do to successfully complete your essay, just as they did with the exercises you completed in part two of this book.

If you have been given the option to choose your own research topic, the assignment for the research essay itself might be open-ended.  For example:

Write a research essay about the working thesis that you have been working on with the previous writing assignments.  Your essay should be about ten pages long, it should include ample evidence to support your point, and it should follow MLA style.

Some research writing assignments are more specific than this, of course.  For example, here is a research writing assignment for a poetry class:

Write a seven to ten page research essay about one of the poets discussed in the last five chapters of our textbook and his or her poems.  Besides your analysis and interpretation of the poems, be sure to cite scholarly research that supports your points.  You should also include research on the cultural and historic contexts the poet was working within.  Be sure to use MLA documentation style throughout your essay.

Obviously, you probably wouldn’t be able to write a research project about the problems of advertising prescription drugs on television in a History class that focused on the American Revolution.

  • What is the main purpose of your research essay?  

 Has the goal of your essay been to answer specific questions based on assigned reading material and your research?  Or has the purpose of your research been more open-ended and abstract, perhaps to learn more about issues and topics to share with a wider audience?  In other words, is your research essay supposed to answer questions that indicate that you have learned about a set and defined subject matter (usually a subject matter which your teacher already more or less understands), or is your essay supposed to discover and discuss an issue that is potentially unknown to your audience, including your teacher.

The “demonstrating knowledge about a defined subject matter” purpose for research is quite common in academic writing.  For example, a political science professor might ask students to write a research project about the Bill of Rights in order to help her students learn about the Bill of Rights and to demonstrate an understanding of these important amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  But presumably, the professor already knows a fair amount the Bill of Rights, which means she is probably more concerned with finding out if you can demonstrate that you have learned and have formed an opinion about the Bill of Rights based on your research and study.

“Discovering and discussing an issue that is potentially unknown to your audience” is also a very common assignment, particularly in composition courses. The subject matter for research essays that are designed to inform your audience about something new is almost unlimited.

Even if all of your classmates have been researching a similar research idea, chances are your particular take on that idea has gone in a different direction.   For example, you and some of your classmates might have begun your research by studying the effect on children of violence on television, either because that was a topic assigned by the teacher or because you simply shared an interest in the general topic.  But as you have focused and refined this initially broad topic, you and your classmates will inevitably go into different directions, perhaps focusing on different genres (violence in cartoons versus live-action shows), on different age groups (the effect of violent television on pre-schoolers versus the effect on teen-agers), or on different conclusions about the effect of television violence in the first place (it is harmful versus there is no real effect).

  • Who is the main audience for your research writing project?  

 Besides your teacher and your classmates, who are you trying to reach with your research?  Who are you trying to convince as a result of the research you have done?  What do you think is fair to assume that this audience knows or doesn’t know about the topic of your research project?  Purpose and audience are obviously closely related because the reason for writing something has a lot to do with who you are writing it for, and who you are writing something for certainly has a lot to do with your purposes in writing in the first place.

In composition classes, it is usually presumed that your audience includes your teacher and your classmates.  After all, one of the most important reasons you are working on this research project in the first place is to meet the requirements of this class, and your teacher and your classmates have been with you as an audience every step of the way.

Contemplating an audience beyond your peers and teachers can sometimes be difficult, still, it might be useful for you to try to be even more specific about your audience as you begin your research essay.  Do you know any “real people” (friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.) who might be an ideal reader for your research essay?  Can you at least imagine what an ideal reader might want to get out of reading your research essay?

I’m not trying to suggest that you ought to ignore your teacher and your classmates as your primary audience.  But research essays, like most forms of writing, are strongest when they are intended for a more specific audience, either someone the writer knows or someone the writer can imagine.  Teachers and classmates are certainly part of this audience, but trying to reach an audience of potential readers beyond the classroom and the assignment will make for a stronger essay.

  • What sort of “voice” or “authority” do you think is appropriate for your research project?

Do you want to take on a personal and more casual tone in your writing, or do you want to present a less personal and less casual tone?  Do you want to use first person, the “I” pronoun, or do you want to avoid it?

My students are often surprised to learn that it is perfectly acceptable in many types of research and academic writing for writers to use the first person pronoun, “I.”  It is the tone I’ve taken with this textbook, and it is an approach that is very common in many fields, particularly those that tend to be grouped under the term “the humanities.

For example, consider this paragraph from Kelly Ritter’s essay “The Economics of Authorship:  Online Paper Mills, Student Writers, and First-Year Composition,” which appeared in June 2005 issue of one of the leading journals in the field of composition and rhetoric, College Composition and Communication:

When considering whether, when, and how often to purchase an academic paper from an online paper-mill site, first-year composition students therefore work with two factors that wish to investigate here in pursuit of answering the questions posed above:  the negligible desire to do one’s own writing, or to be an author, with all that entails in this era of faceless authorship vis-á-vis the Internet; and the ever-shifting concept of “integrity,” or responsibility when purchasing work, particularly in the anonymous arena of online consumerism. (603, emphasis added)

Throughout her thoughtful and well-researched essay, Ritter uses first person pronouns (“I” and “my,” for example) when it is appropriate:  “I think,” “I believe,” “my experiences,” etc.

This sort of use of the personal pronoun is not limited to publications in English studies.  This example comes from the journal Law and Society Review (Volume 39, Issue 2, 2005), which is an interdisciplinary journal concerned with the connections between society and the law.  The article is titled “Preparing to Be Colonized:  Land Tenure and Legal Strategy in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii” and it was written by law professor Stuart Banner:

The story of Hawaii complicates the conventional account of colonial land  tenure reform.  Why did the land tenure reform movement of the  late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries receive its earliest implementation in, of all places, Hawaii?  Why did the Hawaiians do this to themselves?  What  did they hope to  gain  from it?  This article attempts to answer  these questions.  At  the end,  I  briefly  suggest why the answers may  shed some light on the process of colonization in other times and places, and thus why the answers may be of interest to people  who are not historians of Hawaii. (275, emphasis added)

Banner uses both “I” and “my” throughout the article, again when it’s appropriate.

Even this cursory examination of the sort of writing academic writers publish in scholarly journals will demonstrate my point:  academic journals routinely publish articles that make use of the first person pronoun.  Writers in academic fields that tend to be called “the sciences” (chemistry, biology, physics, and so forth, but also more “soft” sciences like sociology or psychology) are more likely to avoid the personal pronoun or to refer to themselves as “the researcher,” “the author,” or something similar.  But even in these fields, “I” does frequently appear.

The point is this: using “I” is not inherently wrong for your research essay or for any other type of academic essay.  However, you need to be aware of your choice of first person versus third person and your role as a writer in your research project.

Generally speaking, the use of the first person “I” pronoun creates a greater closeness and informality in your text, which can create a greater sense of intimacy between the writer and the reader.  This is the main reason I’ve used “I” in The Process of Research Writing: using the first person pronoun in a textbook like this lessens the distance between us (you as student/reader and me as writer), and I think it makes for easier reading of this material.

If you do decide to use a first person voice in your essay, make sure that the focus stays on your research and does not shift to you the writer.  When teachers say “don’t use I,” what they are really cautioning against is the overuse of the word “I” such that the focus of the essay shifts from the research to “you” the writer.  While mixing autobiography and research writing can be interesting (as I will touch on in the next chapter on alternatives to the research essay), it is not the approach you want to take in a traditional academic research essay.

The third person pronoun (and avoidance of the use of “I”) tends to have the opposite effect of the first person pronoun:  it creates a sense of distance between writer and reader, and it lends a greater formality to the text.  This can be useful in research writing because it tends to emphasize research and evidence in order to persuade an audience.

(I should note that much of this textbook is presented in what is called second person voice, using the “you” pronoun.  Second person is very effective for writing instructions, but generally speaking, I would discourage you from taking this approach in your research project.)

In other words, “first person” and “third person” are both potentially acceptable choices, depending on the assignment, the main purpose of your assignment, and the audience you are trying to reach.  Just be sure to consistent—don’t switch between third person and first person in the same essay.

  • What is your working thesis and how has it changed and evolved up to this point?

You already know how important it is to have an evolving working thesis. Remember:  a working thesis is one that changes and evolves as you write and research.  It is perfectly acceptable to change your thesis in the writing process based on your research.

Once you have some working answers to these basic questions, it’s time to start thinking about actually writing the research essay itself.  For most research essay projects, you will have to consider at least most of these components in the process:

  • The Formal Outline
  • The Introduction
  • Background Information
  • Evidence to Support Your Points
  • Antithetical Arguments and Answers
  • The Conclusion
  • Works Cited or Reference Information

The rest of this chapter explains these parts of the research essay and it concludes with an example that brings these elements together.

 Creating and Revising a Formal Outline

 Frequently, research essay assignments will also require you to include a formal outline, usually before the essay begins following the cover page.  Formal outlines are sort of table of contents for your essay:  they give the reader a summary of the main points and sub-points of what they are about to read.

The standard format for an outline looks something like this:

I.  First Major Point

     A.  First sub-point of the first major point

           1.  First sub-point of the first sub-point

           2.  Second sub-point of the first sub-point

      B.  Second sub-point of the first major point

II.  Second Major point

And so on.  Alternatively, you may also be able to use a decimal outline to note the different points.  For example:

  1.  First Major point

1.1.    First sub-point of the first major point

1.1.1    First sub-point of the first sub-point

1.1.2    Second sub-point of the first sub-point

1.2.    Second sub-point of the first major point

  1. Second Major point

Sometimes, teachers ask student writers to include a “thesis statement” for their essay at the beginning of the outline.

Generally speaking, if you have one “point,” be it a major point or a sub-point, or sub-point of a sub-point (perhaps a sub-sub-point!), you need to have at least a second similar point.  In other words, if you have a sub-point you are labeling “A.,” you should have one labeled “B.”  The best rule of thumb I can offer in terms of the grammar and syntax of your various points is to keep them short and consistent.

Now, while the formal outline is generally the first thing in your research essay after the title page, writing one is usually the last step in the writing process.  Don’t start writing your research essay by writing a formal outline first because it might limit the changes you can make to your essay during the writing process.

Of course, a formal outline is quite different from a working outline, one where you are more informally writing down ideas and “sketching” out plans for your research essay before or as you write.  There are no specific rules or methods for making a working outline– it could be a simple list of points, it could include details and reminders for the writer, or anything in-between.

Making a working outline is a good idea, particularly if your research essay will be a relatively long and complex one.  Just be sure to not confuse these two very different outlining tools.

The Introduction

 Research essays have to begin somewhere, and this somewhere is called the “introduction.”  By “beginning,” I don’t necessarily mean only the first paragraph—introductions in traditional research essays are frequently several paragraphs long.  Generally speaking though, the introduction is about 25 percent or less of the total essay; in other words, in a ten-page, traditional research essay, the introduction would rarely be longer than two and a half pages.

Introductions have two basic jobs to perform:

  • To get the reader’s attention; and
  • To briefly explain what the rest of the essay will be about.

What is appropriate or what works to get the reader’s attention depends on the audience you have in mind for your research essay and the sort of voice or authority you want to have with your essay.  Frequently, it is a good idea to include some background material on the issue being discussed or a brief summary of the different sides of an argument.  If you have an anecdote from either your own experience or your research that you think is relevant to the rest of your project or will be interesting to your readers, you might want to consider beginning with that story.  Generally speaking, you should avoid mundane or clichéd beginnings like “This research essay is about…” or “In society today…”

The second job of an introduction in a traditional research essay is to explain to the reader what the rest of the essay is going to be about.  This is frequently done by stating your “thesis statement,” which is more or less where your working thesis has ended up after its inevitable changes and revisions.

A thesis statement can work in a lot of different places in the introduction, not only as the last sentence at the end of the first paragraph.  It is also possible to let your readers know what your thesis is without ever directly stating it in a single sentence.  This approach is common in a variety of different types of writing that use research, though traditionally, most academic research essays have a specific and identifiable thesis statement.

Let’s take a look at this example of a WEAK introductory paragraph:

In our world today, there are many health problems, such as heart disease and cancer.  Another serious problem that affects many people in this country is diabetes, particularly Type II diabetes. Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough insulin, and the body needs insulin to process sugars and starches.  It is a serious disease that effects millions of people, many of whom don’t even know they have the disease. In this essay, I will discuss how eating sensibly and getting plenty of  exercise are the most important factors in preventing Type 2 Diabetes.


The first two sentences of this introduction don’t have much to do with the topic of diabetes, and the following sentences are rather vague.  Also, this introduction doesn’t offer much information about what the rest of the essay will be about, and it certainly doesn’t capture the reader’s attention.

Now, consider this revised and BETTER introductory paragraph:

Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough of insulin to process starches and sugars effectively.  According to the American Diabetes Association web site, over 18 million Americans have diabetes, and as many as 5.2 million of these people are unaware that they have it. Perhaps even more striking is that the most common form of diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes, is largely preventable with a sensible diet and exercise.

This introduction is much more specific and to the point, and because of that, it does a better job of getting the reader’s attention.  Also, because it is very specific, this introduction gives a better sense to the reader where the rest of the essay will be leading.

While the introduction is of course the first thing your readers will see, make sure it is one of the last things you decide to revise in the process of writing your research essay.  You will probably start writing your essay by writing an introduction—after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.  But it is nearly impossible to write a very effective introduction if the rest of the essay hasn’t been written yet, which is why you will certainly want to return to the introduction to do some revision work after you’ve written your essay.

Background Information (or Helping Your Reader Find a Context)

It is always important to explain, contextualize, and orientate your readers within any piece of writing.  Your research essay is no different in that you need to include background information on your topic in order to create the right context for the project.

In one sense, you’re giving your reader important background information every time you fully introduce and explain a piece of evidence or an argument you are making.  But often times, research essays include some background information about the overall topic near the beginning of the essay.  Sometimes, this is done briefly as part of the introduction section of the essay; at other times, this is best accomplished with a more detailed section after the introduction and near the beginning of the essay.

How much background information you need to provide and how much context you need to establish depends a great deal on how you answer the “Getting Ready” questions at the beginning of this chapter, particularly the questions in which you are asked to consider you purpose and your audience.  If one of the purposes of your essay is to convince a primary audience of readers who know little about your topic or your argument, you will have to provide more background information than you would if the main purpose of your essay was to convince a primary audience that knows a lot about your topic. But even if you can assume your audience is as familiar with the topic of your essay as you, it’s still important to provide at least some background on your specific approach to the issue in your essay.

It’s almost always better to give your readers “too much” background information than “too little.”  In my experience, students too often assume too much about what their readers (the teacher included!) knows about their research essay.  There are several reasons why this is the case; perhaps it is because students so involved in their research forget that their readers haven’t been doing the same kind of research.  The result is that sometimes students “cut corners” in terms of helping their audience through their essay.  I think that the best way to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings is for you to always remember that your readers don’t know as much about your specific essay as you do, and part of your job as a writer is to guide your reader through the text.

In Casey Copeman’s research essay at the end of this chapter, the context and background information for the subject matter after the introduction; for example:

The problems surrounding corruption in university athletics have been around ever since sports have been considered important in American culture. People have emphasized the importance of sports and the significance of winning for a long time. According to Jerome Cramer in a special report published in Phi Delta Kappan, “Sports are a powerful experience, and America somehow took this belief of the ennobling nature of sports and transformed it into a quasi-religion” (Cramer K1).

Casey’s subject matter, college athletics, was one that she assumed most of her primary audience of fellow college students and classmates were familiar with.  Nonetheless, she does provide some basic information about the importance of sports team in society and in universities in particular.

Weaving in Evidence to Support Your Point

Throughout your research essay, you need to include evidence that supports your points.  There is no firm rule as to “how much” research you will want or need to include in your research essay.  Like so many other things with research writing, it depends on your purpose, the audience, the assignment, and so forth.  But generally speaking, you need to have a piece of evidence in the form of a direct quote or paraphrase every time you make a claim that you cannot assume your audience “just knows.”

Stringing together a series of quotes and paraphrases from different sources might show that you have done a lot of research on a particular topic, but your audience wants to know your interpretation of these quotes and paraphrases, and your reader wants and needs to be guided through your research.  To do this, you need to work at explaining the significance of your evidence throughout your essay.

For example, this passage does a BAD job of introducing and weaving in evidence to support a point.

In America today, the desire to have a winning team drives universities to admit academically unqualified students.  “At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive by championship-winning teams” (Duderstadt 191).

The connection between the sentence and the evidence is not as clear as it could be.  Further, the quotation is simply “dropped in” with no explanation.  Now, compare it with this revised and BETTER example:

The desire to always have a winning team has driven many universities to admit academically unqualified student athletes to their school just to improve their sports teams. According to James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, the corruption of university athletics usually begins with the process of recruiting and admitting student athletes. He states that, “At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive but championship-winning teams” (Duderstadt 191).

Remember:  the point of using research in writing (be it a traditional research essay or any other form of research writing) is not merely to offer your audience a bunch of evidence on a topic.  Rather, the point of research writing is to interpret your research in order to persuade an audience.

Antithetical Arguments and Answers

Most research essays anticipate and answer antithetical arguments, the ways in which a reader might disagree with your point. Besides demonstrating your knowledge of the different sides of the issue, acknowledging and answering the antithetical arguments in your research essay will go a long way toward convincing some of your readers that the point you are making is correct.

Antithetical arguments can be placed almost anywhere within a research essay, including the introduction or the conclusion.  However, you want to be sure that the antithetical arguments are accompanied by “answering” evidence and arguments.  After all, the point of presenting antithetical arguments is to explain why the point you are supporting with research is the correct one.

In the essay at the end of this chapter, Casey brings up antithetical points at several points in her essay.  For example:

To be fair, being a student-athlete isn’t easy.  They are faced with difficult situations when having to juggle their athletic life and their academic life at school. As Duderstadt said, “Excelling in academics is challenging enough without the additional pressures of participating in highly competitive athletic programs” (Duderstadt 190). So I can see why some athletes might experience trouble fitting all of the studying and coursework into their busy schedules.

 The Conclusion

As research essays have a beginning, so do they have an ending, generally called a conclusion.  While the main purpose of an introduction is to get the reader’s attention and to explain what the essay will be about, the goal of a conclusion is to bring the reader to a satisfying point of closure.  In other words, a good conclusion does not merely “end” an essay; it wraps things up.

It is usually a good idea to make a connection in the conclusion of your essay with the introduction, particularly if you began your essay with something like a relevant anecdote or a rhetorical question.  You may want to restate your thesis, though you don’t necessarily have to restate your thesis in exactly the same words you used in your introduction.  It is also usually not a good idea to end your essay with obvious concluding cues or clichéd phrases like “in conclusion.”

Conclusions are similar to introductions on a number of different levels.  First, like introductions, they are important since they leave definite “impressions” on the reader—in this case, the important “last” impression.  Second, conclusions are almost as difficult to write and revise as introductions.  Because of this, be sure to take extra time and care to revise your conclusion.

Here’s the conclusion of Casey Copeman’s essay, which is included at the end of this chapter:

As James Moore and Sherry Watt say in their essay “Who Are Student Athletes?”, the “marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics has been turbulent, and always will be” (7).  The NCAA has tried to make scholarly success at least as important as athletic success with requirements like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16.  But there are still too many cases where under-prepared students are admitted to college because they can play a sport, and there are too still too many instances where universities let their athletes get away with being poor students because they are a sport superstar.  I like cheering for my college team as much as anyone else, but I would rather cheer for college players who were students who worried about learning and success in the classroom, too.

“Works Cited” or “Reference” Information

If I were to give you one and only one “firm and definite” rule about research essay writing, it would be that you must have a section following the conclusion of your essay that explains to the reader where the evidence you cite comes from.  This information is especially important in academic essays since academic readers are keenly interested in the evidence that supports your point.

If you’re following the Modern Language Association rules for citing evidence, this last section is called “Works Cited.”  If you’re following the American Psychological Association rules, it’s called “References.”  In either case, this is the place where you list the full citation of all the evidence you quote or paraphrase in your research essay.  Note that for both MLA and APA style, research you read but didn’t actually use in your research essay is not included.   Your teacher might want you to provide a “bibliography” with your research essay that does include this information, but this is not the same thing.

Frankly, one of the most difficult aspects of this part of the research essay is the formatting—alphabetizing, getting the spacing right, underlining titles or putting them in quotes, periods here, commas there, and so forth.  Again, see the appendix for information on how to do this.  But if you have been keeping and adding to an annotated bibliography as you have progressed through the process of research (as discussed in chapter six), this part of the essay can actually be merely a matter of checking your sources and “copying” the citation information from the word processing file where you have saved your annotated bibliography and “pasting” it into the word processing file where you are saving your research essay.


A Student Example:  

“The Corruption Surrounding University Athletics” by Casey K. Copeman

The assignment that Casey Copeman followed to write this research essay is similar to the assignment described earlier in this chapter:

Write a research essay about the working thesis that you have been working on with the previous writing assignments.  Your essay should be about ten pages long, it should include ample evidence to support your point, and it should follow MLA style.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that Casey’s work on this project began long before she wrote this essay with the exercises she worked through to develop her working thesis, to gather evidence, and to evaluate and categorize it.

The Corruption Surrounding University Athletics

By Casey Copeman


I.   Introduction

II.  Origins and description of the problem

A. The significance of sports in our society

B.  The drive and pressure for universities to win leads to admitting academically unqualified student athletes

III.    The Eligibility Rules Proposition 48 and Proposition 16

A.  Proposition 48 explained

B.  Proposition 16 explained

C.  Proposition 16 challenged but upheld in the courts

D. Academic eligibility rules still broken

IV.  Rules Broken At School

A.  The pressures faced by athletes and universities

1. The pressures of being a student athlete

2.  The pressures put on universities to recruit “good players”

B.  “Athletics” emphasized over studies indirectly and directly

1.  The indirect message is about sports above academics

2.  Occasionally, the message to emphasize sports is direct

3.  Student-athletes often steered into “easy” classes

C. Good student athletes, mostly in sports other than football and men’s basketball, get a bad name

V. Conclusion

Most young people who are trying to get into college have to spend a lot of time studying and worrying.  They study to get good grades in high school and to get good test scores, and they worry about whether or not all of the studying will be enough to get them into the college of their choice.  But there is one group of college students who don’t have to study and worry as much, as long as they are outstanding football or basketball players:  student athletes.

Issues involving student athletes with unsatisfactory test scores, extremely low grade point averages, special privileges given to them by the schools, and issues concerning their coaches’ influence on them academically, have all been causes of concern with university athletics. The result is a pattern where athletics at the university level are full of corruption surrounding the academic standards and admittance policy that are placed upon some university athletes.  In this essay, I will explain what I see as the source of this corruption and the ways in which academic standards are compromised in the name of winning.

The problems surrounding corruption in university athletics have been around ever since sports have been considered important in American culture. People have emphasized the importance of sports and the significance of winning for a long time. According to Jerome Cramer in a special report published in Phi Delta Kappan, “Sports are a powerful experience, and America somehow took this belief of the ennobling nature of sports and transformed it into a quasi-religion” (Cramer K1).  Cramer also says,

“The original sin of sports in United States society seems to have been committed when we allowed our games to assume too much of our lives. It was as if we could measure our moral fiber by the won/lost record of our local team. Once schools began to organize sports, winning became a serious institutional consideration. Our innocence vanished when we refused to accept losing” (Cramer K1).

This importance of sports and winning in the United States today is what has led to this corruption that we now see in our top universities when it comes to athletes and how they are treated by their schools.

The desire to always have a winning team has driven many universities to admit academically unqualified student athletes to their school just to improve their sports teams. According to James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, the corruption of university athletics usually begins with the process of recruiting and admitting student athletes. He states that, “At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive but championship-winning teams” (Duderstadt 191). This, in turn, “puts enormous pressure to recruit the most outstanding high school athletes each year, since this has become the key determinant of competitive success in major college sports”(Duderstadt 192).

According to Duderstadt, “Coaches and admissions officers have long known that the pool of students who excel at academics and athletics is simply too small to fill their rosters with players who meet the usual admissions criteria” (Duderstadt 193). This pressure put on coaches to recruit the best athletes “leads them to recruit athletes who are clearly unprepared for college work or who have little interest in a college education” (Duderstadt 193). This obviously leads to a problem because although most universities have standards that must be met for students to be admitted, “in all too many cases, recruited athletes fail to meet even these minimum standards” (Duderstadt 193).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) set some minimum standards for admission in January of 1986. They had decided that “the time had come to make sure that college athletes were not only athletically qualified, but that they also were academically competent to represent schools of higher learning” (Cramer K4). Proposition 48 required that “all entering athletes score a minimum of 700 on their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and achieve a minimum high school grade point average in core academic courses of 2.0, or sit out their first year” (Duderstadt 194). This seemed like a fairly reasonable rule to most universities around the country, and some even thought, “a kid who can not score a combined 700 and keep a C average in high school should not be in college in the first place” (Cramer K4).

In 1992, the NCAA changed these requirements slightly with the introduction of proposition 16.  According to the document “Who Can Play? An Examination of NCAA’s Proposition 16,” which was published on the National Center for Educational Statistics in August 1995, Proposition 16 requirements are “more strict than the current Proposition 48 requirements. The new criteria are based on a combination of high school grade point average (GPA) in 13 core courses and specified SAT (or ACT) scores.”

Some coaches and college athletes have argued against proposition 48 and proposition 16 because they claim that they unfairly discriminate against African-American students.  According to Robert Fullinwider’s web-based article “Academic Standards and the NCAA,” some “black coaches were so incensed that they toyed with the idea of boycotting NCAA events.”  Fullinwider goes on:

John Thompson, then-coach of Georgetown University’s basketball team, complained that poor minority kids were at a disadvantage taking the “mainstream-oriented” SAT. “Certain kids,” he noted just after the federal court’s decision, “require individual assessment. Some urban schools cater to poor kids, low-income kids, black and white. To put everybody on the same playing field [i.e., to treat them the same in testing] is just crazy.”

Fullinwider writes that the legality of Proposition 16 was challenged in March 1999 on the basis that it was discriminatory to African-American student athletes.  However, in its summary of the case Cureton v. NCAA, the Marquette University Law School You Make the Call web site explains that the federal courts ultimately decided that Proposition 16 was not a violation of students’ civil rights and could be enforced by the NCAA.

With rules like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16, “the old practice of recruiting athletes who are clearly unqualified for admission with the hope that their contributions on the field will be sufficient before their inadequacy in the classroom, slowed somewhat” (Duderstadt 195). However, as facts show today, it seems as if these rules are harder to enforce in some universities than the NCAA originally thought.

There have been many documented instances of athletes being admitted to a university without even coming close to meeting the minimum requirements for academic eligibility set by the NCAA. One such instance happened just one year after Proposition 48 was enacted. North Carolina State University signed Chris Washburn, “one of the most highly recruited high school seniors in the nation” (Cramer K4). Although Washburn proved to be valuable to the team, it was later found out that “his combined score on the SAT was a whopping 470,” and that he had “an abysmal academic record in high school” (Cramer K4). Both his SAT score and his poor grades in high school all fell much lower than the standards set by the NCAA.

According to Art Padilla, former vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina System, student athletes like Chris Washburn are not uncommon at most universities (Cramer K5). He states, “Every major college sports institution has kids with that kind of academic record, and if they deny it, they are lying” (Cramer K5).

The admitting of unqualified students is not the only place where colleges seem to step out of bounds though. Once the athlete has been admitted and signed with the university, for some, a long list of corruption from the university is still to follow when it comes to dealing with their academics.

Furthermore, many universities face a lot of pressure to recruit good players to their schools regardless of their academic skills. Debra Blum reported in 1996 about the case of a star basketball player who wanted to attend Vanderbilt University.  As Blum writes, “Vanderbilt denied him (basketball player Ron Mercer) admission, describing his academic record as not up to snuff.  So he enrolled at Kentucky, where he helped his team to a national championship last season” (A51).  The case of Vanderbilt losing Mercer caused a lot of “soul searching” at Vanderbilt, in part because there was a lot of pressure from “other university constituents, particularly many alumni … to do what it takes to field more-competitive teams, especially in football and men’s basketball” (A51).

But these pressures are also the point where school officials are tempted to break the rules. As John Gerdy wrote in his article “A Suggestion For College Coaches: Teach By Example,” in universities where the purpose of recruiting a great athlete is to improve the team, they often claim, “intercollegiate athletics are about education, but it is obvious that they are increasingly about entertainment, money, and winning” (28).

Mixed messages are sent when some student-athletes “are referred to as “players” and “athletes” rather than “students” and “student-athletes” (Gerdy 28). It is clear that these student-athletes are sometimes only wanted for their athletic ability, and it is also clear that there are sometimes many pressures to recruit such students. As Austin C. Wherwein said, many student athletes “are given little incentive to be scholars and few persons care how the student athlete performs academically, including some of the athletes themselves” (Quoted in Thelin 183).

In some cases, coaches directly encourage students to emphasize their athletic career instead of their studies.  One such instance, reported in Sports Illustrated by Austin Murphy, involves an Ohio State tailback, Robert Smith, who quit the football team “saying that coaches had told him he was spending too much time on academics” (Murphy 9). Smith claims that offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac “encouraged him to skip a summer-school chemistry class because it was causing Smith, who was a pre-med student, to miss football practice” (Murphy 9). Smith did not think this was right so he walked off the team (Murphy 9). Supposedly, “the university expressed support for Uzelac, who denied Smith’s allegations” (Murphy 9).

Another way some universities sometimes manage the academic success of their student-athletes is to enroll them in easier classes, particularly those set up specifically for student-athletes. The curriculum for some of these courses is said to be “less than intellectually demanding”(Cramer K2). Jan Kemp, a remedial English professor at the University of Georgia who taught a class with just football players for students, was “troubled by the fact that many of her students seemed incapable of graduating from college” (Cramer K2). This seems surprising, but in fact some athletes from the University of Georgia “were described as being given more than four chances to pass developmental studies classes” without ever being successful (Cramer K2). Also, “school records show that in an effort to keep athletes playing, several were placed in the regular academic curriculum without having passed even the watered-down classes” (Cramer K2). Although this particular story comes from the University of Georgia, it is not just unique to that school. Many universities have been guilty of doing such things for their athletes just so they could continue to play on the team.

Of course, not all student-athletes are bad students. Many student-athletes actually do well in school and excel both athletically and academically. But although these true “student-athletes” do exist, they are often overshadowed by those negative images of athletes who do not do as well in school. And while all sorts of different sports have had academic problems with their athletes, the majority of corruption at the university level exists in football and basketball teams (Cramer K3). According to Duderstadt, “football and basketball are not holding their own when it comes to student academic honors” (Duderstadt 190). He says “Football and basketball have developed cultures with low expectations for academic performance. For many student-athletes in these sports, athletics are clearly regarded as a higher priority than their academic goals” (Duderstadt 191). So although this label of the bad student-athlete does not even come close to applying to all athletes, some universities are still considered, as John Thelin wrote in his book Games Colleges Play, “academically corrupt and athletically sound” (199).

As James Moore and Sherry Watt say in their essay “Who Are Student Athletes?”, the “marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics has been turbulent, and always will be” (7).  The NCAA has tried to make scholarly success at least as important as athletic success with requirements like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16.  But there are still too many cases where under-prepared students are admitted to college because they can play a sport, and there are too still too many instances where universities let their athletes get away with being poor students because they are a sport superstar.  I like cheering for my college team as much as anyone else, but I would rather cheer for college players who were students who worried about learning and success in the classroom, too.


Works Cited

Blum, Debra E. “Trying to Reconcile Academies and Athletics.” Chronicle of Higher Education 42 (1996): A51-A52.

Cramer, Jerome. “Winning or Learning? Athletws- and Academws- In America.” Phi Delta Kappan 67 (1986): KI-K9.

“Cureton v. NCAA.”  You Make the Call.  University of Marquette Law School. 2.3 (2000). 2 August 2005. <>

Duderstadt, James J. Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President’s Perspective. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Fullinwider, Robert K. “Academic Standards and the NCAA.” Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. 19.2/3 (1999).  2 August 2005. <>

Gerdy, John R. “A Suggestion For College Coaches: Teach By Example.” Black Issues In Higher Education 14 (1997): 28-29.

Moore, James L. III, and Sherry K. Wart. “Who Are Student Athletes?” New Directions For Student Services 93 (2001): 7-18.

Murphy, Austin. “Back On the Team.” Sports Illustrated 76 (1992): 9.

Thelin, John R. Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

“Who Can Play? An Examination of NCAA’s Proposition 16.”  National Center for Educational Statistics Web Site.  August 1995.  2 August 2005.  <>.

Intros and Outros

provided by Lumen Learning

In Today’s World …

Those opening words—so common in student papers—represent the most prevalent misconception about introductions: that they shouldn’t really say anything substantive. The five-paragraph format that most students mastered before coming to college suggests that introductory paragraphs should start very general and gradually narrow down to the thesis. As a result, students frequently write introductions for college papers in which the first two or three (or more) sentences are patently obvious or overly broad. Charitable and well rested instructors just skim over that text and start reading closely when they arrive at something substantive. Frustrated and overtired instructors emit a dramatic self-pitying sigh, assuming that the whole paper will be as lifeless and gassy as those first few sentences.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of beginning opening sentences with the following phrases, firmly resolve to strike them from your repertoire right now:

“In today’s world …

“Throughout human history …

“Since the dawn of time …

“Webster’s Dictionary defines [CONCEPT] as …

For one thing, sentences that begin with the first three stems are often wrong. For example, someone may write, “Since the dawn of time, people have tried to increase crop yields.” In reality, people have not been trying to increase crop yields throughout human history—agriculture is only about 23,000 years old, after all—and certainly not since the dawn of time (whenever that was). For another, sentences that start so broadly, even when factually correct, could not possibly end with anything interesting.

I started laughing when I first read this chapter because my go-to introduction for every paper was always “Throughout history…” In high school it was true—my first few sentences did not have any meaning. Now I understand it should be the exact opposite. Introductions should scream to your readers, HEY GUYS, READ THIS! I don’t want my readers’ eyes to glaze over before they even finish the first paragraph, do you? And how annoying is it to read a bunch of useless sentences anyways, right? Every sentence should be necessary and you should set your papers with a good start.

Aly Button

So what should you do? Well, start at the beginning. By that I mean, start explaining what the reader needs to know to comprehend your thesis and its importance. For example, compare the following two paragraphs:

    Five-Paragraph Theme Version:

Throughout time, human societies have had religion. Major world religions since the dawn of civilization include Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Animism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These and all other religions provide a set of moral principles, a leadership structure, and an explanation for unknown questions such as what happens after people die. Since the dawn of religion, it has always been opposed to science because one is based on faith and the other on reason. However, the notion of embodied cognition is a place where physical phenomena connect with religious ones. Paradoxically, religion can emphasize a deep involvement in reality, an embodied cognition that empowers followers to escape from physical constraints and reach a new spirituality. Religion carefully constructs a physical environment to synthesize an individual’s memories, emotions, and physical actions, in a manner that channels the individual’s cognitive state towards spiritual transcendence.

Organically Structured Version:1

Religion is an endeavor to cultivate freedom from bodily constraints to reach a higher state of being beyond the physical constraints of reality. But how is it possible to employ a system, the human body, to transcend its own limitations? Religion and science have always had an uneasy relationship as empiricism is stretched to explain religious phenomena, but psychology has recently added a new perspective to the discussion. Embodiment describes the interaction between humans and the environment that lays a foundation for cognition and can help explain the mechanisms that underlie religion’s influence on believers. This is a rare moment where science and religion are able to coexist without the familiar controversy. Paradoxically, religion can emphasize a deep involvement in reality, an embodied cognition that empowers followers to escape from physical constraints and reach a new spirituality. Religion carefully constructs a physical environment to synthesize an individual’s memories, emotions, and physical actions, in a manner that channels the individual’s cognitive state towards spiritual transcendence.

In the first version, the first three sentences state well known facts that do not directly relate to the thesis. The fourth sentence is where the action starts, though that sentence (“Since the dawn of religion, it has always been opposed to science because one is based on faith and the other on reason”) is still overstated: when was this dawn of religion? And was there “science,” as we now understand it, at that time? The reader has to slog through to the fifth sentence before the intro starts to develop some momentum.

Training in the five-paragraph theme format seems to have convinced some student writers that beginning with substantive material will be too abrupt for the reader. But the second example shows that a meatier beginning isn’t jarring; it is actually much more engaging. The first sentence of the organic example is somewhat general, but it specifies the particular aspect of religion (transcending physical experience) that is germane to the thesis. The next six sentences lay out the ideas and concepts that explain the thesis, which is provided in the last two sentences. Overall, every sentence is needed to thoroughly frame the thesis. It is a lively paragraph in itself, and it piques the reader’s interest in the author’s original thinking about religion.

Sometimes a vague introductory paragraph reflects a simple, obvious thesis and a poorly thought-out paper. More often, though, a shallow introduction represents a missed opportunity to convey the writer’s depth of thought from the get-go. Students adhering to the five-paragraph theme format sometime assume that such vagueness is needed to book-end an otherwise pithy paper. As you can see from these examples, that is simply untrue. I’ve seen some student writers begin with a vague, high-school style intro (thinking it obligatory) and then write a wonderfully vivid and engaging introduction as their second paragraph. Other papers I’ve seen have an interesting, original thesis embedded in late body paragraphs that should be articulated up front and used to shape the whole body. If you must write a vague “since the dawn of time” intro to get the writing process going, then go ahead. Just budget the time to rewrite the intro around your well developed, arguable thesis and ensure that the body paragraphs are organized explicitly by your analytical thread.

Here are two more examples of excellent introductory paragraphs written by undergraduate students in different fields. Note how, in both cases, (1) the first sentence has real substance, (2) every sentence is indispensable to setting up the thesis, and (3) the thesis is complex and somewhat surprising. Both of these introductory paragraphs set an ambitious agenda for the paper. As a reader, it’s pretty easy to imagine how the body paragraphs that follow will progress through the nuanced analysis needed to carry out the thesis:

From Davis O’Connell’s “Abelard”:2

He rebelled against his teacher, formed his own rival school, engaged in a passionate affair with a teenager, was castrated, and became a monk. All in a day’s work. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Peter Abelard gained the title of “heretic” along the way. A 12th-century philosopher and theologian, Abelard tended to alienate nearly everyone he met with his extremely arrogant and egotistical personality. This very flaw is what led him to start preaching to students that he had stolen from his former master, which further deteriorated his reputation. Yet despite all of the senseless things that he did, his teachings did not differ much from Christian doctrine. Although the church claimed to have branded Abelard a heretic purely because of his religious views, the other underlying reasons for these accusations involve his conceited personality, his relationship with the 14-year-old Heloise, and the political forces of the 12th century.

From Logan Skelly’s “Staphylococcus aureus:3

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is causing a crisis in modern healthcare. The evolution of multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus is of particular concern because of the morbidity and mortality it causes, the limited treatment options it poses, and the difficulty in implementing containment measures for its control. In order to appreciate the virulence of S. aureus and to help alleviate the problems its resistance is causing, it is important to study the evolution of antibiotic resistance in this pathogen, the mechanisms of its resistance, and the factors that may limit or counteract its evolution. It is especially important to examine how human actions are causing evolutionary changes in this bacterial species. This review will examine the historical sequence of causation that has led to antibiotic resistance in this microorganism and why natural selection favors the resistant trait. It is the goal of this review to illuminate the scope of the problem produced by antibiotic resistance in S. aureus and to illustrate the need for judicious antibiotic usage to prevent this pathogen from evolving further pathogenicity and virulence.

If vague introductory paragraphs are bad, why were you taught them? In essence you were taught the form so that you could later use it to deepen your thinking. By producing the five-paragraph theme over and over, it has probably become second nature for you to find a clear thesis and shape the intro paragraph around it, tasks you absolutely must accomplish in academic writing. However, you’ve probably been taught to proceed from “general” to “specific” in your intro and encouraged to think of “general” as “vague”. At the college level, think of “general” as context: begin by explaining the conceptual, historical, or factual context that the reader needs in order to grasp the significance of the argument to come. It’s not so much a structure of general-to-specific; instead it’s context-to-argument.

My average for writing an intro is three times. As in, it takes me three tries at writing one to get it to say exactly what I want it to. The intro, I feel, is the most important part of an essay. This is kind of like a road map for the rest of the paper. My suggestion is to do the intro first. This way, the paper can be done over a period of time rather than running the risk of forgetting what you wanted to say if you stop.

Kaethe Leonard

In Conclusion …

I confess that I still find conclusions hard to write. By the time I’m finalizing a conclusion, I’m often fatigued with the project and struggling to find something new to say that isn’t a departure into a whole different realm. I also find that I have become so immersed in the subject that it seems like anything I have to say is absurdly obvious.4 A good conclusion is a real challenge, one that takes persistent work and some finesse.

Strong conclusions do two things: they bring the argument to a satisfying close and they explain some of the most important implications. You’ve probably been taught to re-state your thesis using different words, and it is true that your reader will likely appreciate a brief summary of your overall argument: say, two or three sentences for papers less than 20 pages. It’s perfectly fine to use what they call “metadiscourse” in this summary; metadiscourse is text like, “I have argued that …” or “This analysis reveals that … .” Go ahead and use language like that if it seems useful to signal that you’re restating the main points of your argument. In shorter papers you can usually simply reiterate the main point without that metadiscourse: for example, “What began as a protest about pollution turned into a movement for civil rights.” If that’s the crux of the argument, your reader will recognize a summary like that. Most of the student papers I see close the argument effectively in the concluding paragraph.

The second task of a conclusion—situating the argument within broader implications—is a lot trickier. A lot of instructors describe it as the So what? challenge. You’ve proven your point about the role of agriculture in deepening the Great Depression; so what? I don’t like the “so what” phrasing because putting writers on the defensive seems more likely to inhibit the flow of ideas than to draw them out. Instead, I suggest you imagine a friendly reader thinking, “OK, you’ve convinced me of your argument. I’m interested to know what you make of this conclusion. What is or should be different now that your thesis is proven?” In that sense, your reader is asking you to take your analysis one step further. That’s why a good conclusion is challenging to write. You’re not just coasting over the finish line.

So, how do you do that? The third story of a three-story thesis situates an arguable claim within broader implications. If you’ve already articulated a thesis statement that does that, then you’ve already mapped the terrain of the conclusion. Your task then is to explain the implications you mentioned: if environmental justice really is the new civil rights movement, then how should scholars and/or activists approach it? If agricultural trends really did worsen the Great Depression, what does that mean for agricultural policy today? If your thesis, as written, is a two-story one, then you may want to revisit it after you’ve developed a conclusion you’re satisfied with and consider including the key implication in that thesis statement. Doing so will give your paper even more momentum.

Let’s look at the concluding counterparts to the excellent introductions that we’ve read to illustrate some of the different ways writers can accomplish the two goals of a conclusion:

Victor Seet on religious embodiment:5

Embodiment is fundamental to bridging reality and spirituality. The concept demonstrates how religious practice synthesizes human experience in reality—mind, body, and environment—to embed a cohesive religious experience that can recreate itself. Although religion is ostensibly focused on an intangible spiritual world, its traditions that eventually achieve spiritual advancement are grounded in reality. The texts, symbols, and rituals integral to religious practice go beyond merely distinguishing one faith from another; they serve to fully absorb individuals in a culture that sustains common experiential knowledge shared by millions. It is important to remember that human senses do not merely act as sponges absorbing external information; our mental models of the world are being constantly refined with new experiences. This fluid process allows individuals to gradually accumulate a wealth of religious multimodal information, making the mental representation hyper-sensitive, which in turn contributes to religious experiences. However, there is an important caveat. Many features of religious visions that are attributed to embodiment can also be explained through less complex cognitive mechanisms. The repetition from religious traditions exercised both physically and mentally, naturally inculcates a greater religious awareness simply through familiarity. Religious experiences are therefore not necessarily caused by embedded cues within the environment but arise from an imbued fluency with religious themes. Embodiment proposes a connection between body, mind, and the environment that attempts to explain how spiritual transcendence is achieved through physical reality. Although embodied cognition assuages the conflict between science and religion, it remains to be seen if this intricate scientific theory is able to endure throughout millennia just as religious beliefs have.

The paragraph first re-caps the argument, then explains how embodiment relates to other aspects of religious experience, and finally situates the analysis within the broader relationship between religion and science.

From Davis O’Connell:6

Looking at Abelard through the modern historical lens, it appears to many historians that he did not fit the 12th-century definition of a heretic in the sense that his teachings did not differ much from that of the church. Mews observes that Abelard’s conception of the Trinity was a continuation of what earlier Christian leaders had already begun to ponder. He writes: “In identifying the Son and Holy Spirit with the wisdom and benignity of God, Abelard was simply extending an idea (based on Augustine) that had previously been raised by William of Champeaux.” St. Augustine was seen as one of the main Christian authorities during the Middle Ages and for Abelard to derive his teachings from that source enhances his credibility. This would indicate that although Abelard was not necessarily a heretic by the church’s official definition, he was branded as one through all of the nontheological social and political connotations that “heresy” had come to encompass.

O’Connell, interestingly, chooses a scholarly tone for the conclusion, in contrast to the more jocular tone we saw in the introduction. He doesn’t specifically re-cap the argument about Abelard’s deviance from social norms and political pressures, but rather he explains his summative point about what it means to be a heretic. In this case, the implications of the argument are all about Abelard. There aren’t any grand statements about religion and society, the craft of historiography, or the politics of language. Still, the reader is not left hanging. One doesn’t need to make far-reaching statements to successfully conclude a paper.

From Logan Skelly:7

Considering the hundreds of millions of years that S. aureus has been evolving and adapting to hostile environments, it is likely that the past seventy years of human antibiotic usage represents little more than a minor nuisance to these bacteria. Antibiotic resistance for humans, however, contributes to worldwide health, economic, and environmental problems. Multi-drug resistant S. aureus has proven itself to be a versatile and persistent pathogen that will likely continue to evolve as long as selective pressures, such as antibiotics, are introduced into the environment. While the problems associated with S. aureus have received ample attention in the scientific literature, there has been little resolution of the problems this pathogen poses. If these problems are to be resolved, it is essential that infection control measures and effective treatment strategies be developed, adopted, and implemented in the future on a worldwide scale—so that the evolution of this pathogen’s virulence can be curtailed and its pathogenicity can be controlled.

Skelly’s thesis is about the need to regulate antibiotic usage to mitigate antibiotic resistance. The concluding paragraph characterizes the pathogens evolutionary history (without re-capping the specifics) and then calls for an informed, well planned, and comprehensive response.

All three conclusions above achieve both tasks—closing the argument and addressing the implications—but the authors have placed a different emphasis on the two tasks and framed the broader implications in different ways. Writing, like any craft, challenges the creator to make these kinds of independent choices. There isn’t a standard recipe for a good conclusion.

Form And Function

As I’ve explained, some students mistakenly believe that they should avoid detail and substance in the introductions and conclusions of academic papers. Having practiced the five-paragraph form repeatedly, that belief sometimes gets built into the writing process; students sometimes just throw together those paragraphs thinking that they don’t really count as part of the analysis. Sometimes though, student writers know that more precise and vivid intros and outros are ideal but still settle on the vague language that seems familiar, safe, and do-able. Knowing the general form of academic writing (simplified in the five-paragraph theme) helps writers organize their thoughts; however, it leads some student writers to approach papers as mere fill-in-the-blank exercises.

I hope you will instead envision paper-writing as a task of working through an unscripted and nuanced thought process and then sharing your work with readers. When you’re engaged with the writing process, you’ll find yourself deciding which substantive points belong in those introductory and concluding paragraphs rather than simply filling those paragraphs out with fluff. They should be sort of hard to write; they’re the parts of the paper that express your most important ideas in the most precise ways. If you’re struggling with intros and conclusions, it might be because you’re approaching them in exactly the right way. Having a clear, communicative purpose will help you figure out what your reader needs to know to really understand your thinking.


  1. Writing in College, a guide by Joseph L. Williams (the co-author of Style) and Lawrence McEnerney for the University of Chicago, offers some excellent advice on drafting and revising introductions and conclusions.
  2. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina also offers excellent advice on writing introductions and conclusions.
  3. Discoveries is a journal published by Cornell University from which the excellent examples in this chapter were drawn. It’s a great source of inspiration.

Important Concepts


purpose for research

purpose and audience are obviously closely related

academic journals routinely publish articles that make use of the first person pronoun

“I” pronoun

third person pronoun

“you” pronoun

formal outline   

working outline    




misconception about introductions: that they shouldn’t really say anything substantive  

five-paragraph format  

vague introductory paragraph

a good conclusion is a real challenge  


Licenses and Attributions


Composing Ourselves and Our World,  Provided by: the authors. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


The Research Essay by Steven D. Krause, The Process of Research Writing, Version 1.0,Spring 2007. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Intros and Outros, Writing in College Lumen Learning, LicenseCC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. Authored by: Amy Guptill. Provided by: The College of Brockport, SUNY. Located at Open SUNY Textbooks. LicenseCC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike


Video 1: How to Plan and Write a Paper: How to DraftUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore Writing Center License: Standard YouTube License

1 This example is slightly adapted from a student-authored essay: Victor Seet, Embodiment in Religion,” Discoveries, 11 (2012). Discoveries is an annual publication of the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines of Cornell University which publishes excellent papers written by Cornell undergraduates.

4 A lot of people have that hang-up: “If I thought of it, it can’t be much of an insight.” It’s another good reason to get others to read your work. They’ll remind you that your points are both original and interesting.


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Composing Ourselves and Our World Copyright © 2019 by Auburn University at Montgomery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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