How To Write a Research Paper Outline (With Examples and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 18, 2022

Published November 5, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Creating research paper outlines can greatly simplify the writing process whether you're completing a school project, scholarship competition or essay contest. Regardless of length or complexity, research paper outlines help organize your thinking. Taking the time to develop this skill will be beneficial throughout schooling and into some careers.

This article will discuss the process of crafting a quality research paper outline for effective and well-structured projects, reports and essays.

Why use an outline?

Outlines are visual aids that help writers organize their thoughts. Most contain the key points of each paragraph, the thesis, topic sentences, and supporting sentences, quotes or citations. Writers also use outlines to visualize essay elements and see how they fit together.

While many high school and college research papers are typically five paragraphs in length, longer papers are often variations on this format. Familiarity with the five-paragraph essay should ease the transition to longer papers.

How to write a research paper outline

After identifying a topic, determine the type of research paper you'll be writing. Common formats include descriptive essays, argumentative essays and comparative essays. Fortunately, the structures for all three are very similar.

Here are steps that will help you craft an outline.

1. Determine the type of essay you'll be writing

Research essays for high school are early college are often five paragraphs in length and are either descriptive or argumentative.

2. Determine your topic

Many times, instructors provide topics for students. The best topics are those that are of interest to your reader and are arguable. Write down all the ideas you want to include or discuss

3. Gather information

Gather notes, resources and references that you will need to support your content. Also, complete any necessary research or investigations. Each main idea should have two or more supporting topics. If your research does not have enough information to support the main idea you are presenting, you should, in general, complete additional research or revise the outline.

4. Organize your outline

Consider using one of the following styles: full sentence or alpha-numeric. Alpha-numeric outlines provide less detail than full sentence outlines. Also, consider using parallel structure. Each section of the outline should begin with the same type of word—nouns or verbs, for example. If using verbs, be certain to use the same tense.

5. Include basic sections

Think in terms of the five-paragraph essay, even if your paper is longer. Essential sections include an introduction, body paragraphs that directly address the thesis and a conclusion.

  • Craft your introductory sentence. This is one of the most important sentences of your paper, second only to the thesis. This sentence should generate interest while introducing your topic.

  • Add the ideas—or full sentences—for at least three supporting sentences, quotations or citations.

  • Create an arguable thesis. This is typically the final sentence in the introduction and contains three points. For example, "The film 'Rosemary's Baby' is a masterpiece because of its use of atmospheric horror, its visual symbols, and the surprise ending."

  • Outline a paragraph to support each point in the thesis. Begin each with a topic sentence that sequentially addresses points in the thesis. For example, the first body paragraph in an essay using the thesis above may be: " 'Rosemary's Baby' was among the first films to successfully use several cinematic elements to create atmospheric horror."

  • Begin the concluding paragraph by restating the paper's thesis. For example, "For the reasons outlined above, 'Rosemary's Baby' was a masterpiece of modern cinematic horror."

  • Add the ideas—or full sentences—for at least two sentences that summarize your essay.

  • End the conclusion with a declarative statement or by making suggestions for future research.

6. Consider compare/contrast essays

The structure for a compare and contrast essay is slightly different. Typically, such papers consist of an introduction, a paragraph of similarities, a paragraph to discuss differences, and a conclusion.

7. Consider advanced organizers for longer essays

In such cases, each point of the thesis may be developed through multiple paragraphs. these may be introduced through an advanced organizer, headings, and subheadings.

Example research paper outlines

In most cases, you won't turn in your outline. As such, It's okay to modify it as often as necessary. While a well-crafted outline using parallel structure looks nice, its most important function is to help you write. Maintaining a consistent style and format is less important than using the elements most helpful to you.

Research outline example 1

The example below provides a basic template for five-paragraph research papers.

I. Introduction

  • Introductory sentence

  • Supporting sentence, citation or quote

  • Supporting sentence, citation, or quote

  • ThesisMost often, a thesis contains three points.

II. Body Paragraph I

  • Topic sentence related to the first point of the thesis

  • Supporting sentence 1 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 2 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 3 or quote with an explanation

III. Body Paragraph II

  • Topic sentence related to the second point of the thesis

  • Supporting sentence 1 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 2 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 3 or quote with an explanation

IV. Body Paragraph III

  • Topic sentence related to the third point of the thesis

  • Supporting sentence 1 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 2 or quote with an explanation

  • Supporting sentence 3 or quote with an explanation

V. Conclusion

  • Restate thesis in a new way

  • Supporting sentence 1

  • Supporting sentence 2

  • Final thoughts, including ideas for future research or additional questions

Research outline example 2

The example below is for a paper that makes the argument that using a ketogenic diet may reduce the incidence of certain diseases. In this case, certain topics may be expanded into separate paragraphs. It uses a full-sentence parallel structure.

I. Introductory paragraph

A. In the United States, health experts have increasingly looked at diet as a causal factor in diseases such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

B. The prevalence of diabetes, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis in the United States is increasing. (Journal of Health statistics)

C. The ketogenic diet is a high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet.

Describe ketogenic parameters for:

  • carbohydrates

  • fat

  • protein

D. Thesis

The ketogenic diet may decrease the prevalence of disease by controlling blood sugar, reducing the intake of refined foods, and limiting excessive protein intake.

II. Body Paragraph 1

A. The ketogenic diet successfully helps adherents control blood sugar.

B. Increased carbohydrate intake negatively affects blood sugar, insulin and correlates with certain diseases.

C. Restricting carbohydrate intake improves measures of fasting blood sugar, insulin response and appears to reduce the instance of certain diseases.

D. Several studies have examined the effects of the ketogenic diet, blood sugar, and disease severity.

  • Describe 16-week ketogenic diet study on diabetes and blood sugar control (McMurray, 2019)

  • Describe 24-week ketogenic diet study on Alzheimer's and blood sugar control (McMurray 2016)

III. Body Paragraph 2

A. In addition to possible disease-modifying benefits of blood sugar control, the ketogenic diet may prevent disease by reducing adherents' consumption of processed food.

B. The ketogenic diet reduces consumption of processed food

C. There is a correlation between consuming processed food and multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

D. Replacing processed food with unprocessed food leads to a decrease in the prevalence of certain diseases (Journal of Diabetes and Weight Management, 2016)

IV. Body Paragraph 3

A. Finally, the ketogenic diet may reduce the occurrence of disease by reducing the overconsumption of protein.

B. Excess protein consumption may contribute to disease.

  • Excess protein creates a burden for the kidneys.

  • Excess protein consumption is predictive of heart disease.

C. The ketogenic diet moderates protein consumption.

D. Studies find there are benefits of decreased protein consumption on disease.

Describe 30-week correlational study on decreased protein consumption and kidney function (McMurtry, West, and Johnson, 2015)

V. Conclusion

A. In conclusion, the ketogenic diet may reduce disease through its roles in reducing carbohydrate and protein intake, as well as aiding in blood sugar management.

B. Summarize research on how the following contribute to disease:

  • Reduction in carbohydrate intake and blood sugar management

  • Reduction in processed food intake and disease

  • Reduction in excess protein consumption and disease

C. Review how ketogenic diet may be beneficial because it:

  • Reduces protein consumption

  • Reduces processed food intake

  • Reduces excess protein consumption

D. Research appears to suggest that there is a relationship between a ketogenic diet and a decrease in variables that may contribute to Alzheimer's, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.

Research outline example 3

This example is a brief, topical outline of reasons why schools should use technology for educational purposes.

I. Introduction

A. The increasing role of technology in careers

B. The need for technologically literate citizens

C. The role of educators to prepare students must include technology literacy

D. The benefits of technology for students include:

  • Allows for new types of assignments

  • Allows for remote learning

  • Reflects modern careers

II. Body paragraph 1

A. Technology allows for simulations, games, and programming

B. Examples of simulation

C. Examples of games

D. Examples of programming

III. Body paragraph 2

A. Technology allows for distance learning

B. Examples of remote learning

C. Example of hybrid learning

  • Students at school and at home

D. Examples of remote collaborations

  • Across cities, states, districts

IV. Body paragraph 3

A. Technology is an important part of many careers

B. Technology prevalence in work (cite Johnson, et. al., 2018)

C. Examples of school projects that mimic work projects (STEM Camp, Boulder Schools, 2012)

D. Examples of schools using technology for problem-solving

V. Conclusion

A. Three reasons to encourage technology in school

  • Problem-solving

  • Remote learning

  • Preparation for careers

B. Summary of innovative uses of technology

C. Summary of support for using technology in schools

  • Belcher (2016) found increased technology use led to better math scores on PSAT

D. Ideas for future research

  • More studies on the effect of technology and test scores

  • Using technology as an intervention for struggling students

Research paper outline example 4

The following example is for a five-paragraph compare and contrast essay on driving vs using public transportation. It uses the full-sentence structure. Research could investigate the specific costs of each type of transportation, their environmental impact and the value of convenience.

I. Introduction

A. Many people use both private and public transportation.

B. Most large cities have busses, subways, and elevated trains that travel within walking distance of many city centers.

C. There are millions of cars on the road, attesting to their popularity.

D. This paper will examine the similarities and differences between public and private transportation.

II. Body paragraph 1 (similarities)

A. There are several similarities between public and private automobile transportation.

B. Both have direct and indirect costs.

C. Both get you where you need to be.

D. Both mostly burn fossil fuels.

III. Body paragraph 2 (differences)

A. There are several differences between public and private automobile transportation.

B. The daily costs of maintaining an automobile are higher.

C. The net environmental impact of using public transportation is less, therefore it is better for the environment.

D. Public transportation requires adhering to the public transportation schedule.

E. Private transportation is more convenient, allowing for greater freedom.

IV. Summary of findings

A. While public transportation does have advantages, driving is superior.

B. Driving allows for greater freedom.

C. Driving is more convenient

D. Driving accommodates those with special physical needs

E. Driving saves time

V. Conclusions

A. This paper examined the similarities and differences between using private and public transportation.

B. Advantages of public transportation include cost and environmental considerations.

C. Advantages of private transportation include convenience, speed and time savings.

  1. Ways to overcome the advantages of public transportation:

  • a. Reduce environmental impact by buying an electric car, carpooling, or ride-sharing.

  • b. Reduce the cost of driving by ride-sharing, buying a reliable used car, driving infrequently.

D. In conclusion, both types of transportation have their respective advantages and disadvantages; for reasons outlined above, however, I believe driving is preferable to public transportation.

Explore more articles