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Research Essay Tutoring Advice

How to Create the Perfect Research Question

Chances are you’ve been asking research questions for as long as you can remember. They might not have been as strong as a level-three research question, but you’ve likely asked how things work, why the world is the way it is, and how one thing affects another. These are all budding research questions waiting to be developed into a fully-fledged essay. Most importantly, many, many essays can answer that question in different ways.

Writing a Good Research Question

A good research question is open-ended without being too open-ended. I’ll get to what that means in a second. A research question, therefore, requires you to find one answer to it. (Tip: a good research question should at least three answers to it.)

Getting overwhelmed? Here’s a visual:

  • Level One: The question has a clear answer that you’d likely already know.
    • For example: “What does the Apple logo look like?” (I know I gave you a hint in the question, but you get the idea.)
  • Level Two: The question has one answer that you’d need to look up.
    • For example: “When was Google founded?”
  • Level Three: The question has at least three answers (three or more) and there’s no clear “right” answer. In other words, each answer could be considered the strongest based on the evidence that supports it.
    • For example: “What are the effects of the Greenhouse Gas Effect on the Earth’s climate?”
  • Level Four: The question has an endless amount of answers. This type of question are far too broad to cover in one essay (or dissertation).
    • For example: “What is the meaning of life?”

Pop Quiz: Which level of question are we aiming for when writing a research essay?

If you said Level Three, you’d be correct. A Level Three research question is perfect for research. This type of question can be fully argued within the scope of an essay no matter how long it needs to be. A Level Three research question doesn’t have a “right” answer and depends entirely on the argument points and evidence supporting it. The most important step of developing a research question, and by far the most overlooked, is narrowing your question.

Narrowing your research question is typically the hardest for students because students can generally avoid a research question that has fewer than three answers. However, the difference between Level Three and Level Four is much more difficult to apply to your own research question. Before we get too deep into narrowing your research question, let’s begin with how you start a research question.

Most of the time, you’ll want to start with “How,” “Why,” or some version of “What are the effects.” I recommend these options because they rarely lead to Level One or Level Two options; they get your brain thinking in the right way. Why don’t we try it?

We will start with a “How” question and make it a Level Three research question.

Let’s take this example: “How does the electoral college operate?”

This is a level two question (unless you can explain it off the top of your head). So, how can we change it to make it Level Three? First of all, let’s complicate it a little. Instead of focusing on the factual information—how the electoral college works—let’s focus on how the electoral college affects the United States.

Let’s try this: “How does the electoral college impact elections?”

What do you think? It’s getting closer to becoming a research question; now, we need to do the infamous job of “narrowing”. When we look at the question, let’s point out all of the general terms that we can make more specific. In this case, I’d say we can get “impact” and “elections” more specific.

The question becomes: “How does the electoral college harm presidential elections?”

Before we fall into the trap of calling this done because it is a Level Three question, let’s imagine we’re writing this essay. We want this essay to be valuable and we want our contribution to be thorough, so we should narrow our timeline down too.

How about: “How has the electoral college harmed the past three presidential elections?”

This question is a strong place to start, and you might limit it as you begin researching and finding what interests you to write. You might decide that you want to focus on a certain demographic like “How has the electoral college disadvantaged Black Americans during the past three presidential elections?” Or you might choose a slightly different niche to focus on. This is all okay because you need to explore to know what you want to write about. So, if you know you have a research essay coming up and you’re nervous about it, start early. Plus, you could always get some help from me.

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Essay-Writing Tutoring Advice

We Need to Change How We Think of the Rebuttal

Nearly every academic writing course you will ever take will tell you that a rebuttal is required for a well-supported argumentative essay. But, the moment you take a course that requires you to write without the rigid academic standards of writing courses, that discourse changes entirely around rebuttals.

The Rebuttal is Still Useful

Before you throw out the idea of writing a rebuttal, bear in mind that there’s a method to the madness. They’re a necessary skill to build despite how little how you actively create them after writing courses. Academic writing courses tell you to explicitly include a rebuttal to your main thesis (and usually it’s supposed to come after you’ve stated and defended all of your sub-theses) in your essay for good reason.

While it’s annoying that different teachers and professors define rebuttal differently, the process of writing a rebuttal is still important. It forces you to look into other perspectives and understand the broader context around your essay. The further you advance in your writing courses the less your teachers and professors will emphasize writing “rebuttals.” Instead, they will talk more about how you should develop a well-defended argument, whatever that means in your case.

A Rebuttal is Confusing and Frustrating

You have to argue someone else’s point as ardently as you would yours and then come back even stronger with another sub-thesis (after you’ve already argued at least two!). They force you to think even harder when your brain probably already hurts. You’ve done all of the research in service of your own essay and own mini-thesis points. But, it doesn’t have to be more work. In fact, it can be (dare I say) fun.

Writing a rebuttal can work with your existing work. Rather than completing an entirely different set of research, chances are you’ve already done the research you need. Not to mention the amount of thought you’ve put into your topic already. You know how you’re going to argue your thesis, so why not make your argument work for you?

Reframe the Way You Think of a Rebuttal

When you finally finish your writing courses, you’ll take other courses that require writing. Whether it’s a history class or sociology class, you’ll likely have to write long-form essays. In these courses, you’ll reframe the way you think about rebuttals from “how the heck do I write from another perspective then prove how it’s wrong?” and start thinking “where are the places in my argument where other perspectives would have a reason to disagree?”

This way of writing your rebuttal also changes how you think about your essay overall. Rather than considering your essay as the right answer, you realize there are other right answers. In fact, the question you are answering is complex and can be answered in a variety of ways. Furthermore, your response to the question is one super strong answer—that you might not agree with—to a complicated question.

The Ongoing Conversation

The rebuttal trains us to think of our essays as weak. Let’s change that and think of our essays as part of an ongoing conversation, within which there aren’t wrong answers. All answers are simply interesting with their weaknesses. In a world where there are few certainties, it’s easy to see that nuanced answers to complex research questions are easily stronger in some places and weaker in others. Take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of your answer when you write your rebuttal. Once you start to think of your argument as one answer, your rebuttal writes itself.

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Essay-Writing Tutoring Advice

Why You Need to Learn How to Identify Bias

Misinformation has nothing to do with your essays in school, right? Bias doesn’t play a role in the essays you read like it does in Facebook and Twitter articles. Right? Every essay you write is probably about some dead author or a few articles from the internet that you don’t care about. Misinformation and bias have nothing to do with the work you produce for your English classes in high school or college. Right?!

Wrong. In fact, misinformation is the reason you write the essays you write. Sure, you talk to your teacher and professor and they might give you a reason closely tailored to their Student Learning Outcomes. But, essay-writing is essential to you developing your voice and understanding how to enter ongoing discourses.

How This Applies to You

Whether you’re writing an essay about Shakespeare or you’re writing an essay on a New York Times article from ten years ago (definitely not speaking on my own frustrating experience with the American education system), you are strengthening your critical reading skills. Critical reading, one of the most important skills you learn in school, is defined by CSU Ohio as, “a reader applies certain processes, models, questions, and theories that result in enhanced clarity and comprehension.” In other words, you do this whenever you read for class. When you are required to write an essay on something you read for class, you’re automatically using critical reading skills.

You learn critical reading with every new text you come across. Since you first started reading, you have had to make sense of it. You read on a daily basis, whether you read social media captions or News headlines. You’re equipped to read for bias even if you’re not actively doing it.

No one wants to reread the same text multiple times as if it’s the first time every time—that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish when we are working to develop incredible outlines for our budding essays. We want to work efficiently and be kind to our future selves; that means we are annotating in useful ways to clearly indicate how the text we’re reading is constructed. We want to deconstruct the text the author worked so hard to put together for us.

Why Care About Bias?

Every conversation in a writing and reading course comes back to the question “so what?” whether that happens in the essay we’re writing (and spoiler alert: it should always happen in the essay we’re writing) or the class we’re writing the essay for. So, what’s the purpose behind all of these essays? Why does critical readership matter?

Misinformation has become increasingly prevalent in our society and it’s convincing; anyone anywhere can put out words on the internet. Some websites are reputable, while others clearly merit further inquiry (think the National Public Radio versus Facebook). The good news is that your critical readership helps you see the difference.

But, bias gets more complicated.

Spotting the difference between vetted information and demonstrably false information can sound easy when you compare reputable news sites with social media platforms; however, this gets more complicated when we take a closer look at news articles.

How To Deal with Bias

Everyone has it; it’s the preference of one thing over another in its most basic form. It can be difficult to keep it out of your writing when you are trying to make an argument because you likely want your audience to believe what you believe—especially when the issue is controversial. To be clear, argumentative writing is not inherently biased and, most of the time, it shouldn’t be. Instead, argumentative writing should solely focus on creating a logical flow of ideas to persuade your reader through reasoning and evidence to back that reasoning. An argument that relies on bias is weak but can still be convincing—which is the problem.