Term Paper

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(taken from the A Gift of Fire website)

Term Paper Assignment: Requirements, Guidelines, and Deadlines

Guidelines/specifications for the paper

Investigate the topic. Use articles and/or books, etc., for background. Your project must include some background research and some activity, e.g., an interview or a physical site visit. (If you choose a topic for which you can’t think of an appropriate activity, discuss it with the instructor.)

Don’t just report. Discuss pros and cons. Evaluate. Use your own words. Quote where appropriate. Give citations for facts and quotes. Discuss how your topic relates to material covered in the text and/or in class discussions.

The paper should be approximately 4000 words.

Outline for the paper (roughly)

  • Cover page with title and your name
  • Introduction/overview of topic and issues to be discussed
  • Background, description, and/or history of the issue
  • Issues, various points of view
  • Results of interviews, observations, etc.
  • Your comments or evaluation
  • Summary
  • List of references
  • Appendix

Use information and/or quotes from your interview or site visit in the appropriate place(s) within your paper. The Appendix should contain the name, position, and company (or other relevant information) for the person(s) you interviewed or the places you visited. For interviews, include your list of questions and indicate if the interview was in person, by phone, or by email. (In-person interviews are best, but may not be available for some topics.) Include the person’s answers. (A summary is ok.) If you identify the person fully and quote extensively from the interview in the body of your paper you do not have to include the appendix. The Appendix does not count toward the 4000 word requirement.

The project is to be done during this course. Do not turn in a paper done earlier for another course or for your job.

Reminders and warnings

Remember what this course is about. A few students have handed in papers that are purely factual or historic (e.g., a history of the Internet, a summary of computer technology used in the military). Such papers will not get high scores. You must include discussion of issues.

One of the most common problems with papers is poor organization. Write an outline. Organize your thoughts. You may use section headings to indicate the topic or purpose of sections of the paper.

A few students have waited until late in the semester to get started, then discovered that information on their topic was unavailable or people they wanted to interview refused. Start early in case you have to change topics or find a new interviewee or activity.

Use a variety of sources for information and arguments. Remember that there’s a lot of junk and unsupported opinion on the Web. Pay attention to quality of your sources. (If your topic is covered in the text, do not use the text as a main source. Report in more depth and/or on newer or other aspects of the topic.)

Now and then, a student hands in a paper he or she did not write at all or in which large segments are copied from other sources. Please don’t do this. It is dishonest, unfair to your fellow students, and unpleasant for both you and the instructor. Plagiarism is usually reported to the appropriate university discipline office. Write in your own words. Start early; talk to the instructor if you have problems.

Requirements for submitting your topic description (due March 10)

Include a title and one or two paragraphs describing what you plan to do. Tell what interviews, site visits, or other activity you plan. Be specific if you can. Include at least one good reference you plan to use.

There will be a limit on the number of students doing any single topic, so it will be good to have a second topic in mind in case you choose one that too many others have chosen.

Tips for interviews

Use ingenuity in choosing and finding interviewees. Choose someone in a position to have special knowledge of the topic. Don’t be afraid of asking well-known people, but be prepared for refusals.

Start early. It may take time to find someone, to schedule the interviews, and to do follow-up.

Plan. Write up your questions in advance. Start with easy questions, getting general information. Ask about positive things before asking about problems. Take notes so you get details right.

Be polite. Identify yourself and your project. Thank the person.

Grading criteria

The project is worth 20% of the course grade. It will be graded 0-20. A few points of your grade will be based on your critique of another student’s paper. A few points will be based on your interview/site visit/activity.

Grading criteria include: background or history, presentation of issues and various points of view, interview or other activity, quality of argument and analysis (principles, examples, counterexamples), structure/organization, clarity of writing, sufficient references, sufficient length, and originality. You should define terms where necessary. Be sure to read and edit your final copy before handing it in.


  • March 10: Topic description due
  • April 14: Draft of paper for peer review/critique due
  • April 21: Peer review/critique due
  • April 28: Final version due

References on writing and research

Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons on Clarity and Grace.
Gordon Harvey, Writing With Sources: A Guide for Students (Hacket, 1998).
Your campus library’s website probably has links to information about doing research and citing online sources.