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How To Write A Psychology Research Paper Outline

I taught my first psychology class in 1994 - and I almost always include some kind of paper assignment in each of my classes. Quick math says that I have probably read nearly 2,000 student papers. I think I’m qualified to give advice on this topic.

With a large batch of student papers set to hit my desk on Monday upcoming, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a formal statement to help guide this process. Here it is.

Tell a Story

If you are writing a research paper, or any paper, you are telling a story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Further, it should read how you speak. Some students think that when they are writing for a college professor, they have to up their language and start using all kinds of fancy words and such. Please!!! We are training you to communicate effectively - not to show others how smart you are. We know you are smart - that is how you got into college in the first place!

While there are certain standards of formality that should be followed in your paper, at the end of the day, always remember that you are primarily trying to communicate some set of ideas to an audience. Thus, you should be keen to attend to the following:

  • Create an outline and use it as a roadmap.
  • Start from the top. That is, think about your actual question of interest - and start there - clearly and explicitly.
  • Make sure that every single sentence points to the next sentence. And every paragraph points to the next paragraph. And every section points to the next section.
  • Write how you speak - imagine that you are telling these ideas to someone - and always assume that someone is a layperson (just a regular old person - not an expert in the field).
  • Make the paper as long as it needs to be to tell your story fully and effectively - don’t let page limits drive your process (to the extent that this is possible).
  • All things equal, note that writing a high number of relatively brief sentences is a better approach than is writing a lower number of relatively long sentences. Often when students write long sentences, the main points get confused.

Use APA-Style for Good

Psychology students have to master APA format. This means using the formal writing style of the American Psychological Association. At first, APA style may well seem like a huge pain, but all of the details of APA style actually exist for a reason. This style was designed so that journal editors are able to see a bunch of different papers (manuscripts) that are in the same standardized format. In this context, the editor is then able to make judgments of the differential quality of the different papers based on content and quality. So APA style exists for a reason!

Once you get the basics down, APA style can actually be a tool to help facilitate great writing.

Write a Good Outline and Flesh it Out

For me, the best thing about APA Style is that it gets you to think in terms of an outline. APA style requires you to create headings and subheadings. Every paper I ever write starts with just an outline of APA-inspired headings and subheadings. I make sure that these follow a linear progression - so I can see the big, basic idea at the start - and follow the headings all the way to the end. The headings should be like the Cliff Notes of your story. Someone should be able to read your headings (just like the headings for this post) and get a basic understanding of the story that you are trying to communicate.

Another great thing about starting with an APA-inspired outline is that it affords you a very clear way to compartmentalize your work on the paper. If you are supposed to write a “big” college paper (maybe 20 or so pages), you may dread thinking about it - and you may put it off because you see the task as too daunting.

However, suppose you have an outline with 10 headings and subheadings. Now suppose that you pretty much have about two pages worth of content to say for each such heading. Well you can probably write two pages in about an hour or maybe less. So maybe you flesh out the first heading or two - then watch an episode of The Office or go for a run. Maybe you flesh out another section later in the day. And then tomorrow you wake up and you’ve completed 30% of your paper already. That doesn’t sound so dreadful, now, does it?

No One Wants to Hear Minutia about Other Studies in Your Research Paper!

I’m usually pretty tolerant of the work that my students submit to me. I know that college is all about learning and developing - and I always remind my students that the reason they are in school is to develop skills such as writing - so I don’t expect any 19-year-old to be Walt Whitman.

This said, there are some rookie mistakes that make me shake my head. A very common thing that students tend to do is to describe the research of others in unnecessary detail. For your introduction, you often have to provide evidence to support the points that you raise. So if you are writing a paper about the importance of, say, familial relatedness in affecting altruistic behavior, you probably need to cite some of the classic scientific literature in this area (e.g., Hamilton, 1964).

This said, please, I urge you, don’t describe more about these past studies that you cite than is necessary to tell your story! If your point is that there past work has found that individuals across various species are more likely to help kin than non-kin, maybe just say that! There is a time and a place for describing the details of the studies of others in your own research paper. On occasion, it is actually helpful to elaborate a bit on past studies. But from where I sit, it’s much more common to see students describe others’ studies in painstaking detail - in what looks like an attempt to fill up pages, to be honest!

As a guide on this issue, here are some things that I suggest you NEVER include in your paper:

  • The number of participants that were in someone else’s study.
  • Information form actual statistical tests from someone else’s study (e.g., The researchers found a significant F ratio (F(2,199) = 4.32, p = 008)).
  • The various conditions or variables that were included in some other study (e.g., These researchers used a mixed-ANOVA model with three between-subject factors and two within-subject factors).

With details like these, I say this: Who cares!? Honestly, when you mention the work of others, you are doing so for a purpose. You are citing just enough of their work to substantiate some point that you are making as you work toward creating a coherent story. Don’t ever lose sight of this fact!

Bottom Line

I’ve read nearly 2,000 student papers to this point in my life. And I hope I am lucky enough to read another 4,000+ before I am pushing up daisies. As I tell my students, if you are going to develop a single skill in college, let it be your ability to write in a clear, effective, and engaging manner.

Students who write psychology papers often find it difficult. That’s OK - that’s expected. If you are a college student, then don’t forget the fact that college is primarily about developing your skills - and no one expects students to be great writers at the age of 18. Developing your ability to write is largely the point of college.

Students often think that they have to write differently for a college research paper than for other purposes. They think that they have to sound smart and use lots of big words and long sentences. This is not the case. Everything you write has the ultimate purpose of communicating to an audience. Clear, straightforward, and narrative approaches to any writing assignment, then, are most likely to hit the mark.

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Start by finding out what type of paper your instructor expects you to write. There are a few common types of psychology papers that you might encounter.

Original Research or Lab Report

The first type is a report or empirical paper that details your own research that you conducted. This is the type of paper you would write if your instructor had you perform your own psychology experiment. This type of paper would follow the basic format similar to an APA format lab report and would include a title page, abstract, introduction, method section, results section, discussion section, and references.

Literature Review

The second type of paper is a literature review that summarizes the research conducted by other people on a particular topic. If you are writing a psychology research paper in this form, your instructor might specify the number of studies that you need to cite as well as the length. Student literature reviews are often required to cite between 5 and 20 studies and are usually between 8 and 20 pages in length.

The format and sections of a literature review usually include an introduction, body, and discussion/implications/conclusions.

Literature reviews often begin by introducing the research question before narrowing the focus down to the specific studies of interest in the paper. You should then described each study in considerable detail. You should also evaluate and compare the studies that you cite and then offer your discussion of the implications of the findings.