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Writing Tip # 2
What is the “Research Thesis”?

By Dr. Thelma T. Reyna
The Writing Pros

After you’ve identified your exact, narrowed topic, you must take it a step further: identifying a “research thesis” or “research hypothesis” to go along with it. Without such a thesis, your paper will be meaningless. Imagine a movie or a novel without a plot. The plot is what gives creative works their substance, their coherence, their appeal. The research thesis — or your “argument” — is what ties your paper together into one coherent work and gives your research paper its importance.

When you write a research paper, you have a point to prove…or more than one point, depending upon your topic. You have an argument to make, and just like in everyday life, you want to prove that your argument is sensible and supportable. In fact, your entire paper rolls out this argument and shows, page after page, how your argument is true. All the research that you do, online and at the library, provides evidence that your argument — your research thesis — is accurate.

How to  Find Your Research Thesis

So, where does your research thesis come from? It comes from your taking an analytical look at your narrowed topic and asking yourself why or how that topic exists as you think it does. Returning to our example from Writing Tip #1, let ’s revisit your chosen narrowed topic: Students’ Disciplinary Problems in Contemporary Southern California Public High Schools.

We ’re still pretending, for the sake of illustration, that you narrowed your initial topic thus. So, based on your choosing this topic, you believe that students in Southern California public high schools today do indeed have disciplinary problems. In other words, you believe that this is truly a “problem in education,” which is how your topic started out. If you did not believe that discipline is a problem, you would have focused on another problem: school funding shortages, lack of sufficient parental involvement in high schools, teacher turnover, etc. So, we will all assume that you believe that discipline is a problem in today’s public Southern California high schools.

Now here comes the next critical question you must ask yourself: Why? Why do students in Southern California public high schools have discipline problems? You come up with a host of possible reasons:
  • Parents have lost control of their adolescent children.
  • The presence of gangs, and the “gang culture,” has caused negative behaviors in Southern California public schools.
  • The modern media (movies, songs, the internet, etc.) celebrates defiance of rules, and this carries over to the public high schools.
  • Public shifting away from church and religion has weakened students’ sense of right and wrong.
  • Because of economic problems, parents work long hours away from home, and adolescents are growing up without boundaries.
  • Teachers and administrators in Southern California’s public high schools do not receive adequate training in disciplining high school students effectively.

Choosing your “Why”

As you analyze the situation and think about each of your Why? responses, you realize that some explanations make more sense than others. Or you believe in one reason much more strongly than the others. Or you may even believe that all of your supposed reasons are applicable, but you only have 25 pages for your whole research paper, so you realize that you must choose only one reason on which to focus.

So you decide to choose reason E. This is the one that seems most plausible to you. You believe thus:
Because of parents’ economic problems in Southern California, they are
oftentimes working away from home for long periods of time and thus do
not raise their adolescent children with needed rules and boundaries. This
leads to these high school students having discipline problems in their
public high schools.

This is your argument. In other words, this is your “research thesis,” or “research hypothesis.” Your research paper will establish this argument in the introduction portion of your paper. It might be reworded thus:
Students’ disciplinary problems in contemporary Southern California
public high schools are related to economic problems taking their parents
away from the home and thus hampering parental teaching of discipline to
their children.
This is your paper’s research thesis. It will guide your paper from start to finish. Once you identify this as your research thesis, or argument, you should begin reading and gathering articles on this issue.

Possible Revision of Your Research Thesis

It may be that what you are finding as you conduct research is NOT in support of your thesis. For this reason, it is very important that you research and read prior to writing your paper. It may be that article after article points to another reason for the discipline problems: perhaps reason A above, or reason F. In this case, what should you do?

Revise your research thesis, your argument. A real researcher must always maintain an open mind and be open to change. If your argument is not defensible, or supportable, then you must shift gears. Continue conducting research, and establish a new research thesis based on evidence you are finding. Your main topic—discipline problems in public high schools in Southern California—is still the same. It is your argument that needs to change based on your preliminary research. Stay flexible!

Once you identify an appropriate, defensible research thesis, write a new research thesis. Then you can craft the title of your 25-page research paper. It might look something like this, assuming that reason F above is indeed a major cause of student discipline problems:
Educators’ Lack of Adequate Training and Student Discipline Problems in Southern California Public High School

Your Research Paper’s Title

Again, note that your title is now much longer than when you first thought of a topic for your paper: “problems in education.” But notice how exact, how precise and focused your topic has become.

So, you now have a working title, a focused topic, and a supportable research thesis. You’ve done enough preliminary research to feel that you’re on the right track with this issue. You’re almost  ready to start writing your paper. Now you need to get organized  with a “road map” of where this research journey will take you.

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