Understanding Research Papers: A Guide For Teachers

Understanding Research Papers: A Guide For Teachers

The overall structure of a research paper will usually follow an hourglass shape. That means that a research paper will start broad by embedding the study into the overall context and state the general issue it addresses. As the Introduction progresses, the scope will become more and more specific. The Introduction ends on a very concrete and narrow note that specifically states the predictions and hypotheses that are being tested with the specific study. The Introduction is followed by the Method section. Here, the researcher will stay on a concrete and narrow level as they describe how the study was conducted, what materials were used, and who the participants were. Following from the Method section, the findings of the study are presented in the Results section. Thus, the Results section is still concrete and specific. Last, but not least, the findings are discussed in the Discussion section. Here, the researcher will start narrow by providing a summary of the findings of their study, but then will broaden the discussion by bringing in other literature, limitations, and, finally, drawing more general conclusions. Consequently, the research paper becomes broader as the Discussion progresses. This hourglass structure, i.e., broad-to-narrow/narrow-to-broad, is reflected in most research papers that you will come across.

Introduction Section

The aim of the Introduction is to provide the rationale for conducting the study. It answers the ‘Why?’ question: Why is it worth investigating that specific topic? Why should we care about that specific topic? The Introduction provides an evidence-based justification for the study. Here the researcher will use different research papers and theories to build a strong argument for the research question and the hypothesis. As you read the Introduction, you should be able to guess what the researcher is going to predict at the end of Introduction. The reason for this is that the researcher will systematically highlight previous findings in the literature and point to potential gaps in the literature, anomalies in previous research, or the need to test assumptions of a theory.

Teacher focus: When reading the Introduction, decide how relevant the topic is for your teaching practice. Does the research paper address issues that are directly relevant for your teaching practice? Have you raised the research question before as part of your teaching? Can the research paper help you solve a problem in your teaching?


Method Section

The Method section in a research paper will give a concrete description of how the study was carried out. It answers the ‘How?’ question by providing a description of the participants that took part in the study, the materials that were used in the study, and the procedure of the study. The procedure specifically provides a step-by-step description what participants had to do in the study. To put it in academic terms, the Method section outlines how the hypothesis was operationalised. This is just a fancy way to say: how the hypothesis was tested.

Teacher focus: As a teacher you may want to pay attention to the material used and how the study was set up. Ask yourself if the study methods are a good representation of materials and setups you use in your classroom. This will help you to put the study into context. Note: No study will ever perfectly match your classroom, but there may be important elements of the study that can be mapped onto your teaching practice.