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Polygence blog / How to Conduct and Showcase Research

STEM Research Paper Outlines: The Ultimate Guide

5 minute read

As a curious high school student, you’ve become interested in conducting your own research, perhaps in the field of psychology. After you conduct your research, the next step is to showcase it to the world! One popular medium to communicate scientific research is through research papers, which you can use to enter scientific competitions or try to get published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, many high school students haven’t written a research paper before, and the structure is quite different from what they typically write during their high school. Outlining a research paper is a great step to make the process less overwhelming. In this article, you’ll learn how to write a STEM research paper outline. If you’re looking for other resources in the paper writing process, check out our guides on how to skim academic articles and how to showcase CS projects on Github.

The goal of the outline is to capture the key points that you want to include in the research paper. It should be detailed enough so that you know what you plan to discuss in the full research paper, but not so detailed such that your outline is basically your paper. As much as possible, try not to be too critical of your outline. Outlines give you a chance to jot down ideas without criticizing them. You can always remove and add to your outline when you are working on the full research paper. 

In this blog post, I’ll give you an example of how to outline each section of a research paper. I’ll use a fictional research study to make the outline more concrete. Imagine that you are a college professor investigating how students learn best. You have a theory that students will retain more information when you include a five-minute break in the middle of the lecture. For your class that meets on Monday, you will include this 5 minute break in the middle of lecture, and for your Tuesday class, you will not. Both classes will cover the same material each day. The Monday class will simply run 5 minutes later to account for the break. Below you’ll find the key ideas to include in each section of the research paper, along with the corresponding example outline.

Introduction

The introduction of your research paper provides context that readers need to understand your research. First, describe the existing research that relates to your study. Next, explain why your research matters. For example, there may be a gap in the existing academic literature and/or a real world issue that you want to solve. Conclude the introduction with an overview of your research, including the research question, hypothesis, and research design at a high level.

Here is an example of how to outline the introduction. Pro-tip: I outline/write this section last since I find it the most tedious. 

  • Existing research

    • Researchers have found that people tend to stop paying attention after 20 minutes of listening to a lecture. (I made this fact up for the purpose of the online, although there is research about this topic.)

    • Note: You will need to cite several sources in the introduction for a research paper. In the outline, give a 1-2 sentence summary about the main finding of each source. 

  • Problem

    • 10% of college students failed the midterm in your introduction to psychology class last semester.

  • Research Overview

    • Students in the Monday version of the class will attend a lecture with a five-minute break in the middle. Students in the Tuesday version will attend a lecture that does not have the five-minute break.

    • Research question: Do students who attend a lecture with a five-minute break in the middle do better on the midterm than students who attend a lecture without a break?

Materials and Methods Section

The goal of the Methods and Materials section is to describe your work with enough detail so that another researcher could recreate it if they wanted to. The “Materials” aspect describes what you studied and the “Methods” aspect describes how you studied it. Note: This section is also sometimes referred to as simply the “Methods” section depending on the journal.

Materials

If your work is experimental or correlational in nature, the Materials subsection involves a detailed description of your participants, your dataset, or both, depending on your research. For participants, include the sample size (total number of participants) and the participants’ demographic information. You should also discuss how you recruited the participants. For datasets, describe what information is included in the dataset, along with how you obtained it.

Methods

The Methods subsection details how you conducted your research. Describe exactly what participants did in the study/experiment. If you conducted your study on a dataset, describe how you cleaned and analyzed the data. Note that the actual numerical results of the data analyses go in the Data section.

Regardless of whether you conducted a study or analyzed a dataset, include details about your variables. For all types of studies, you will need to discuss your dependent variables, what you measured. If you ran an experiment, describe your independent variable(s), what you manipulated in your experiment.

  • Materials

    • Participants

      • Sample size: 300

      • Median age: 20.5

      • Gender: 50% female, 49% male, 1% non-binary

    • Recruitment

      • Participants were students in an introduction to psychology class at a university.

      • They agreed to participate in a study at some point during the semester, but they were not told exactly what it would be about.

  • Methods

    • Procedure

      • Break Condition: Monday class. There was a five-minute break in the middle of each lecture.

      • Control Condition: Tuesday class. There was not a five-minute break during the lecture.

    • Dependent Variable

      • Students’ scores on the midterm 

Data

In this section, you’ll provide summary statistics of your data along with the numerical results of any statistical analyses you ran. When you write your actual research paper, you will also include figures – bar graphs, scatter plots, histograms, etc. – to give readers a way to visually comprehend your data. Whether or not to include those figures in the outline is up to you.

Also, note that the Data section contains the “objective” numerical results. The interpretation of the results is in the next section. “Objective” is in quotation marks because choosing to run a certain test involves some subjectivity, but the actual result of the test is objective.

  • Summary statistics

    • Mean score on the midterm for the break condition: 88.7

    • Mean score on the midterm for the control condition: 85.2

  • Statistical tests

    • The t-test between the two conditions’ midterm scores was significant, with a p-value of p = 0.03.

 

Discussion

The Discussion section is the subjective interpretation of the results from the Data section. If you didn’t get the anticipated results, give a couple of explanations as to why you think that happened. Do you think you would get different results if you changed the study in some way? If you did get the anticipated results, discuss what your findings mean for academia and/or the real world.

  • Students who had a break in the middle of lecture did significantly better on the midterm than students who did not have a break in the middle of lecture.

  • These results suggest that lecturers should include short breaks so that students retain the information better.

Conclusion

The goal of the Conclusion section is to summarize the strengths and limitations of your study and identify future directions for research. To address potential future directions for research, you can say something along these lines: “Future researchers should extend this research by addressing X, Y, Z limitations that I mentioned earlier.”

  • Strengths

    • Large sample size

  • Weaknesses 

    • Students were not randomly assigned to conditions – students who signed up for the Monday class may be different from those who signed up for Tuesday class

  • Future Directions

    • Researchers should conduct the study the following academic year, but reverse the conditions so that the Tuesday class has the break and the Monday class does not.

In this blog post, I’ve explained the key elements to include when outlining a STEM research paper, and I have included the full outline below. Check out this post to learn more about how to write a research paper.

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