college paper

What Kind of Paper Does Your Professor Want to See?

When students get an assignment for a “paper,” many times they don’t have a clue what kind of paper it is. Too many times, they assume it’s an essay, full of opinions, like just about every paper they’ve written in high school. They think a college paper is just another paper.

But there are several kinds of college paper, and unless you’re in an English or Journalism class, it’s a fair bet that your paper is not an essay.

college paper

Here are three main types of non-essay papers that you might get assigned in college, and how to tell the difference between them.

1. The annotated bibliography.

Annotated bibliographies talk about the individual sources you’ve looked at. What does this book say about your topic? What does that article say about it?

A paragraph out of an annotated bibliography might look something like this:

Martinez and his colleagues discuss the issue of social disorganization and its relationship to poverty. Through qualitative interviews with a random sample of people living in purposefully selected, economically distressed areas, they find that social disorganization and poverty are tightly related to each other (pages 32 – 46), and discuss possible solutions both at the individual level and at the institutional level (pages 154-163).

Annotated bibliographies can take a number of specific forms, but one common one is for you to define a topic and then discuss four or six (or ten) sources that talk about that topic, in terms of what that source says about the topic. Annotated bibliographies, therefore, are source-focused.

2. The literature review.

Literature reviews pull together several different sources and discuss their common ideas. The focus is no longer on the sources, but their shared ideas.

A paragraph out of a literature review might look something like this:

Poverty’s relationship to social disorganization comes earlier than social disorganization’s relationship to crime, and this relationship appears in the literature in several ways. One way is when poor residents do not have the money, time, or energy to improve socially disorganized situations in their homes and neighborhoods. This can show up as lacking the money to pay for marriage licenses or divorce proceedings (Jones and Baldwin 2005:340) or get therapy for family relationship issues (Kolowitz et al 1986:112); lacking time and energy to repair damaged homes and lawns (Martinez and Marquez 2001:41; Kolowitz et al 1996:102) or to get acquainted with new neighbors (Jing and Kokossa 1997:79); and lacking all three when trying to find legitimate work, childcare, or economic assistance (Mackey 2011:186; Kolowitz et al 1986:117). Another indicator of this relationship is when the lack of legitimate opportunities in an area are related to an overall disinvestment in the neighborhood and its residents, both by the city or town, and by companies that might otherwise provide such opportunities (Jackson 2007:344).

Literature reviews may be compare-and-contrast (find three sources that support gun control and three that don’t, and compare them) or they may just be a straight list, as above. Either way, a literature review is shared idea-focused.

3. The research paper.

Research papers present an argument about the relationship between two or more topics. They go beyond a literature review because they use the data from the literature to support the argument they are building.

A paragraph out of a research paper might look something like this:

While poverty is well-known in disorganized neighborhoods, the usual assumption is that the disorganization causes the poverty (Chatham 2014; Kolowitz et al 1986). However, there is evidence to suggest that the cause-effect relationship is reversed, or at least reciprocal, between disorganization and poverty. For example, poor residents do not have the money, time, or energy to improve socially disorganized situations in their homes and neighborhoods. This can show up as lacking the money to pay for marriage licenses or divorce proceedings (Jones and Baldwin 2005:340) or get therapy for family relationship issues (Kolowitz et al 1986:112); lacking time and energy to repair damaged homes and lawns (Martinez and Marquez 2001:41; Kolowitz et al 1996:102) or to get acquainted with new neighbors (Jing and Kokossa 1997:79); and lacking all three when trying to find legitimate work, childcare, or economic assistance (Mackey 2011:186; Kolowitz et al 1986:117). It is hard to take seriously the idea that cleaning up the disorganization will fix the poverty problem, but it cannot be denied that poverty makes these problems far worse than they would be otherwise.

Research papers are supporting an argument. Note that although the literature review and research paper paragraphs look pretty similar, they are not the same. The literature review is idea-focused, while the research paper is argument-focused.

Tying It Together

So how do you know which college paper your professor wants? Simple. Look at the requirements for the paper. Do they want you to talk about the sources (annotated bibliography), collect and discuss the ideas (literature review), or make an argument (research paper)? Once you know that, you’re going to be much more informed about what kind of paper you’re supposed to be writing!

You May Also Be Interested In…
Page Count is Just Professor Shorthand
The ACE Method for Choosing a Paper Topic
Making Citations Easy
Three Things To Know About Research
The Too-Many-Ideas Problem

 

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