Editor's note: Matt Diggs is a faculty member at Grantham University who teaches the capstone seminar that all multidisciplinary degree students must complete. He also teaches a variety of social science electives in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As part of my duties at the college, I facilitate a course called CA499. This is a capstone senior project meant for students in online degree programs who are taking their last class before they graduate. Being at the end of the journey for many students is a rewarding part of this job.

Students tend to make five fairly common mistakes on the paper. I think these mistakes are largely preventable. If you’re writing research papers of any kind, perhaps you can go through the gauntlet and avoid these mistakes!

1. Not using the librarian

We have an amazing Librarian at Grantham, for example, who helps students locate research. It is amazing to me that some students still do not utilize this resource in their last-ever course. Don’t be afraid! She doesn’t bite. Everyone who has ever contacted her only speaks of her amazing-ness. Sometimes, a do-it-yourself attitude can be counter-productive when we have people here to help.

2. Not using proper citation

We are discussing this in our faculty development seminar this month, and it is important for people to really understand. If you use someone’s exact words, wrap that thing in quotes and put a bow on top of it with a proper internal citation. If you paraphrase, you still have to put the bow on it – but you can leave the wrapping paper at home. Also, did you know if you use Library Resources, part of our library sources actually format the citation for you for your references page? Again, refer to mistake No. 1!

3. A research paper is not “connect the quotes”

Some students believe that a research paper is 30-40% quotations – and they simply connect commentary between each additional quote. That’s not the way research papers work. Good research papers should synthesize material. I want to know your evaluation of the research – not what the researcher said.  I’ve had students literally type three- to four-paragraph quotes. Or they cite verbatim what the DSM says about a diagnosis, taking several pages to do so. Use original quotes sparingly, and avoid the temptation to play connect the quotes.

4. Complacency

Minimum papers do not receive maximum grades.  Sometimes, students forget that a “C” is for average work. An "A" is defined as excellent work. In fact, if everyone did excellent work, excellent work would then become average, and we would all revert to getting C’s again! I can’t tell you how many 4,000-word papers magically end at 4,025-4,050 words. Students who typically and reliably earn A’s typically and reliably go above and beyond. Unless your teacher has instituted a page maximum or has told you otherwise, shoot for the stars in your work. When reading papers, I can almost tell that point where students have decided they’ve met the minimum and they quit writing as much. It really impacts the flow. Teachers can tell!

5. Not using the proper format

Grantham, for instance, has adopted a system-wide protocol that all papers should be in APA format. We have a lot of great resources to introduce to you what it is. I always use the metaphor that it is our music tablet. Any great musician knows how to read sheet music because notes go on a certain place on the page and represent certain things. Different staffs mean different things. APA format is very similar. It is a format that starts with a running head, a title page, certain margins, certain font – and it standardizes everything. Don’t be afraid to check out the OWL Purdue site, which is also linked in the ANGEL resources. APA is like riding a bike – once you’ve got it, it’s pretty easy – but it does seem intimidating until you get on the bike. You should practice it on all assignments and all papers.

Hopefully these tips will help you avoid future meltdowns on papers – whether they are in my class or other classes!

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