This week I was reflecting on a wonderful student who happened to showed up super-late the very first day of class this semester. I asked myself, “How much good behavior from this student was needed to offset that one seemingly small mistake?”
The answer to this question isn’t really important. What is important is realizing that people — including your professors — put way too much weight on noteworthy events like showing up late the first day or surfing the Internet during class one time to decide what kind of student you are. A famous personality researcher named Walter Mischel discovered that indeed people weigh too heavily these “prototypical behaviors” that squarely represent the broader class of a given trait when judging others to have certain personality traits. This means that based on just one or two noteworthy events, the professor might label you to be an uncaring student.
But you can use this kind of information to help you make a great impression on your professor (or your friends for that matter). For example, you can be the one student who understands a particularly hard reading and offers an especially insightful comment about it. Or you can be the one student who turns in her midterm paper early.
You knew all this already, didn’t you? After all, you go to the hospital for a sick friend or bring the chicken noodle soup to the sick friend in your dorm…you do these prototypical things, and your friend will never what a caring friend you are.
Last week I explained how to get started on your paper and write an excellent opening. Here’s a recap of what to do in the opening paragraphs: First, catch your professor’s interest with an intriguing fact relevant to your paper. Next, state clearly the main purpose of your paper. Then, briefly describe the main points related to that purpose that you will be covering in the rest of your paper.
This week I explain how to write an excellent body to your critical paper. Before you begin, you should consider writing an outline to the main arguments or points you plan to make in the paper. Then, develop each paragraph around the argument. Back each argument with very specific facts from the readings that you are analyzing or critiquing. Keep in mind that the more specific you are in providing details that support your arguments, the better your critical paper will be.
Wherever possible tie each argument back to the central point or thesis of your paper (which you already explicitly decribed in one of your opening paragraphs). Then add transitional phrases to the beginning of each paragraph, so that your whole paper reads as one seamless logical flow of ideas that are carefully backed by specifics from the readings.
Now it’s time for your conclusion. Summarize all your key points and leave your professor with a very clear take-home message. Make the professor feel that he or she knows exactly what you were trying to accomplish in the paper and that you did accomplish it. The more vague and general you are in the conclusion, the more your professor will get the impression that you just ran out of gas at the end of the all-nighter you pulled to finish it. Don’t bring up any new material in the conclusion.
As always, please let me know if my advice helps you this term!
…and you haven’t started it yet. I’m going to help you make it great. The next couple of posts will be devoted to how to write exactly the kind of critical paper your professor wants. (Note that the rules are very different for creative papers.)
This week let’s focus on how to get started. Find out exactly what your professor is looking for in the critical paper because each professor is looking for something a bit different. Read the syllabus closely for how long it should be, what kind of style to use for citations, etc. Every semester, I tell students not to put their names on the paper (just ID numbers so that I can grade them blind), but every semester some students still put their names on it.
Typically your professors are looking for some critical analysis of either the class readings or readings that you are supposed get yourself from the library or online. This means that you must read very closely these materials before you start your paper to make sure you really understand what you are analyzing in your paper. One of the most common mistakes I see is when the students present a “straw-person argument”, which means that they have presented a simplistic version of what the reading really said so that they can easily criticize the reading. You’re not going to do that!
So this week, re-read the stuff that you will be analyzing in your paper. Jot down good criticisms that occur to you as you read. Perhaps you noticed some flaws to the authors’ reasoning, some weaknesses in their research design, or some contradictions between their conclusions and the findings of another paper. Start to formulate a central theme to your paper, also called a thesis or position that you are going to advance with your paper.
Then work on your opening paragraph. Start with something provocative and interesting (yet still professional) to catch your professor’s interest. Keep in mind that your professor likely has a huge pile of papers to grade and finds grading to be a grind — so make yours stand out and easy to read.
In those opening paragraphs, make absolutely sure that you very clearly state your purpose or thesis of the paper. Also, give an overview of the arguments that you will be making to support your thesis, so that your professor knows what is coming and can more easily follow your train of thought in the rest of your paper. The easier your paper is to read and grade, the more your overworked professor will be inclined to give you the A you deserve.
Next week we’ll talk about the body and conclusion to your paper. (If you can’t stand the wait or want a step-by-step guide for paper writing, you can grab a copy of my Clever Student paperback at the Notre Dame Bookstore or click on the book link to order it on this blog and read the chapter called “Writing a Great Paper for that Professor.“)
Please post your questions. I’m here to help!
I just got back from a psychology conference in Las Vegas. The most interesting thing about my trip was not my coming back from a $5000 loss at the poker tables to losing only $800. No. It was a great talk by leading psychologist Jennifer Crocker on building self-esteem.
Professor Crocker explained that many college students try to build their self-esteem by showing their peers how great they are. But these attempts to look good don’t work. What she has found that DOES work is being responsive to your peers’ need for self-esteem. You build them up, and then your self-esteem goes up.
Professor Crocker studied college students and found that their responsiveness to their roommates was followed down the road by elevations in their own self-esteem.
So try making your friends feel particularly good about themselves this week and let’s see what happens!