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What this handout is about

This handout discusses some of the common writing assignments in psychology courses, and it presents strategies for completing them. The handout also provides general tips for writing psychology papers and for reducing bias in your writing.

What is psychology?

Psychology, one of the behavioral sciences, is the scientific study of observable behaviors, like sleeping, and abstract mental processes, such as dreaming. Psychologists study, explain, and predict behaviors. Because of the complexity of human behaviors, researchers use a variety of methods and approaches.  They ask questions about behaviors and answer them using systematic methods. For example, to understand why female students tend to perform better in school than their male classmates, psychologists have examined whether parents, teachers, schools, and society behave in ways that support the educational outcomes of female students to a greater extent than those of males.

Writing in psychology

Writing in psychology is similar to other forms of scientific writing in that organization, clarity, and concision are important.  The Psychology Department at UNC has a strong research emphasis, so many of your assignments will focus on synthesizing and critically evaluating research, connecting your course material with current research literature, and designing and carrying out your own studies.

Common assignments

Reaction papers

These assignments ask you to react to a scholarly journal article.  Instructors use reaction papers to teach students to critically evaluate research and to synthesize current research with course material.  Reaction papers typically include a brief summary of the article, including prior research, hypotheses, research method, main results, and conclusions. The next step is your critical reaction. You might critique the study, identify unresolved issues, suggest future research, or reflect on the study’s implications.  Some instructors may want you to connect the material you are learning in class with the article’s theories, methodology, and findings. Remember, reaction papers require more than a simple summary of what you have read.

To successfully complete this assignment, you should carefully read the article. Go beyond highlighting important facts and interesting findings. Ask yourself questions as you read: What are the researchers’ assumptions? How does the article contribute to the field? Are the findings generalizable, and to whom?  Are the conclusions valid and based on the results?  It is important to pay attention to the graphs and tables because they can help you better assess the researchers’ claims.

Your instructor may give you a list of articles to choose from, or you may need to find your own.  The American Psychological Association (APA) PsycINFO database is the most comprehensive collection of psychology research; it is an excellent resource for finding journal articles.  You can access PsycINFO from the E-research tab on the Library’s webpage.  Here are the most common types of articles you will find:

  • Empirical studies test hypotheses by gathering and analyzing data. Empirical articles are organized into distinct sections based on stages in the research process: introduction, method, results, and discussion.
  • Literature reviews synthesize previously published material on a topic. The authors define or clarify the problem, summarize research findings, identify gaps/inconsistencies in the research, and make suggestions for future work. Meta-analyses, in which the authors use quantitative procedures to combine the results of multiple studies, fall into this category.
  • Theoretical articles trace the development of a specific theory to expand or refine it, or they present a new theory. Theoretical articles and literature reviews are organized similarly, but empirical information is included in theoretical articles only when it is used to support the theoretical issue.

You may also find methodological articles, case studies, brief reports, and commentary on previously published material. Check with your instructor to determine which articles are appropriate.

Research papers

This assignment involves using published research to provide an overview of and argument about a topic.  Simply summarizing the information you read is not enough. Instead, carefully synthesize the information to support your argument. Only discuss the parts of the studies that are relevant to your argument or topic.  Headings and subheadings can help guide readers through a long research paper. Our handout on literature reviews may help you organize your research literature.

Choose a topic that is appropriate to the length of the assignment and for which you can find adequate sources. For example, “self-esteem” might be too broad for a 10- page paper, but it may be difficult to find enough articles on “the effects of private school education on female African American children’s self-esteem.” A paper in which you focus on the more general topic of “the effects of school transitions on adolescents’ self-esteem,” however, might work well for the assignment.

Designing your own study/research proposal

You may have the opportunity to design and conduct your own research study or write about the design for one in the form of a research proposal. A good approach is to model your paper on articles you’ve read for class. Here is a general overview of the information that should be included in each section of a research study or proposal:

  • Introduction: The introduction conveys a clear understanding of what will be done and why. Present the problem, address its significance, and describe your research strategy. Also discuss the theories that guide the research, previous research that has been conducted, and how your study builds on this literature. Set forth the hypotheses and objectives of the study.
  • Methods:  This section describes the procedures used to answer your research questions and provides an overview of the analyses that you conducted. For a research proposal, address the procedures that will be used to collect and analyze your data. Do not use the passive voice in this section. For example, it is better to say, “We randomly assigned patients to a treatment group and monitored their progress,” instead of “Patients were randomly assigned to a treatment group and their progress was monitored.” It is acceptable to use “I” or “we,” instead of the third person, when describing your procedures. See the section on reducing bias in language for more tips on writing this section and for discussing the study’s participants.
  • Results: This section presents the findings that answer your research questions. Include all data, even if they do not support your hypotheses.  If you are presenting statistical results, your instructor will probably expect you to follow the style recommendations of the American Psychological Association. You can also consult our handout on figures and charts. Note that research proposals will not include a results section, but your instructor might expect you to hypothesize about expected results.
  • Discussion: Use this section to address the limitations of your study as well as the practical and/or theoretical implications of the results. You should contextualize and support your conclusions by noting how your results compare to the work of others. You can also discuss questions that emerged and call for future research. A research proposal will not include a discussion section.  But you can include a short section that addresses the proposed study’s contribution to the literature on the topic.

Other writing assignments

For some assignments, you may be asked to engage personally with the course material. For example, you might provide personal examples to evaluate a theory in a reflection paper.  It is appropriate to share personal experiences for this assignment, but be mindful of your audience and provide only relevant and appropriate details.

Writing tips for psychology papers

Psychology is a behavioral science, and writing in psychology is similar to writing in the hard sciences.  See our handout on writing in the sciences.  The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association provides an extensive discussion on how to write for the discipline.  The Manual also gives the rules for psychology’s citation style, called APA. The Library’s citation tutorial will also introduce you to the APA style.

Suggestions for achieving precision and clarity in your writing

  • Jargon: Technical vocabulary that is not essential to understanding your ideas can confuse readers. Similarly, refrain from using euphemistic phrases instead of clearer terms.  Use “handicapped” instead of “handi-capable,” and “poverty” instead of “monetarily felt scarcity,” for example.
  • Anthropomorphism: Anthropomorphism occurs when human characteristics are attributed to animals or inanimate entities.  Anthropomorphism can make your writing awkward.  Some examples include: “The experiment attempted to demonstrate…,” and “The tables compare…”  Reword such sentences so that a person performs the action: “The experimenter attempted to demonstrate…”  The verbs “show” or “indicate” can also be used: “The tables show…”
  • Verb tenses: Select verb tenses carefully. Use the past tense when expressing actions or conditions that occurred at a specific time in the past, when discussing other people’s work, and when reporting results.  Use the present perfect tense to express past actions or conditions that did not occur at a specific time, or to describe an action beginning in the past and continuing in the present.
  • Pronoun agreement: Be consistent within and across sentences with pronouns that refer to a noun introduced earlier (antecedent). A common error is a construction such as “Each child responded to questions about their favorite toys.” The sentence should have either a plural subject (children) or a singular pronoun (his or her). Vague pronouns, such as “this” or “that,” without a clear antecedent can confuse readers: “This shows that girls are more likely than boys …” could be rewritten as “These results show that girls are more likely than boys…”
  • Avoid figurative language and superlatives: Scientific writing should be as concise and specific as possible.  Emotional language and superlatives, such as “very,” “highly,” “astonishingly,” “extremely,” “quite,” and even “exactly,” are imprecise or unnecessary. A line that is “exactly 100 centimeters” is, simply, 100 centimeters.
  • Avoid colloquial expressions and informal language: Use “children” rather than “kids;” “many” rather than “a lot;” “acquire” rather than “get;” “prepare for” rather than “get ready;” etc.

Reducing bias in language

Your writing should show respect for research participants and readers, so it is important to choose language that is clear, accurate, and unbiased.  The APA sets forth guidelines for reducing bias in language: acknowledge participation, describe individuals at the appropriate level of specificity, and be sensitive to labels. Here are some specific examples of how to reduce bias in your language:

  • Acknowledge participation: Use the active voice to acknowledge the subjects’ participation. It is preferable to say, “The students completed the surveys,” instead of “The experimenters administered surveys to the students.”  This is especially important when writing about participants in the methods section of a research study.
  • Gender: It is inaccurate to use the term “men” when referring to groups composed of multiple genders. See our handout on gender-inclusive language for tips on writing appropriately about gender.
  • Race/ethnicity: Be specific, consistent, and sensitive with terms for racial and ethnic groups. If the study participants are Chinese Americans, for instance, don’t refer to them as Asian Americans. Some ethnic designations are outdated or have negative connotations. Use terms that the individuals or groups prefer.
  • Clinical terms: Broad clinical terms can be unclear. For example, if you mention “at risk” in your paper, be sure to specify the risk—“at risk for school failure.”  The same principle applies to psychological disorders. For instance, “borderline personality disorder” is more precise than “borderline.”
  • Labels: Do not equate people with their physical or mental conditions or categorize people broadly as objects. For example, adjectival forms like “older adults” are preferable to labels such as “the elderly” or “the schizophrenics.” Another option is to mention the person first, followed by a descriptive phrase— “people diagnosed with schizophrenia.”  Be careful using the label “normal,” as it may imply that others are abnormal.
  • Other ways to reduce bias: Consistently presenting information about the socially dominant group first can promote bias. Make sure that you don’t always begin with men followed by other genders when writing about gender, or whites followed by minorities when discussing race and ethnicity. Mention differences only when they are relevant and necessary to understanding the study. For example, it may not be important to indicate the sexual orientation of participants in a study about a drug treatment program’s effectiveness. Sexual orientation may be important to mention, however, when studying bullying among high school students.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

American Psychological Association. n.d. “Frequently Asked Questions About APA Style®.” APA Style. Accessed June 24, 2019.

American Psychological Association. 2010. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Landrum, Eric. 2008. Undergraduate Writing in Psychology: Learning to Tell the Scientific Story. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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