Category Archives: Getting Started

Space: Why the environment you work in matters

Do you have a favorite place to get homework done? Is the place you study the same place you go to hang out with friends? Let’s face it. We’ve all had nights where we want to sit and socialize, but also have mounds of work to get done–and getting together with friends tends to check the socialize box while completely derailing the homework train. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s to separate where I work from where I play. Otherwise, I’m risking getting distracted and severely minimizing my productivity. But guess what?! There’s a way to have a productive space, while also creating a fun, comfortable environment. It’s called a WISE workshop.

WISE stands for Write-In SEries. It’s a place created to help students through the writing process, whether you’re in the brainstorming phase of your FYE paper or polishing up your senior capstone. WISE workshops happen throughout the semester in the third-floor library classroom.

When you come to WISE, you’ll find one fantastic research librarian, one stellar Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) faculty, and one trained peer writing tutor. You can ask for help, but you don’t have to. There’s ZERO pressure! There’s no requirement for silence (and it rarely is completely quiet), but there are options for silent study/writing if you need. You can get help with any writing assignment you can imagine, or you can just sit and work solo. You can even work on other projects (like art, or math, or anything you need).

What makes this work? You’re in a stress-free environment where people are casually chatting and enjoying their time, but they’re all getting work done–even the faculty! It’s more fun than studying alone, but far more productive than getting together to “do homework” with friends.

So, come to WISE! Work on anything you desire and know that there’s help (and cookies!) at the ready. See you there!

Brooke Engel is a senior. Last time she wrote a blog she had two majors and one minor. Now she only has one major–art. People change. She still loves dogs.

Get the ball rolling

by Bubba Sugarman

You’ve just received a new assignment from your favorite class. It’s a page of complex paragraphs filled with instructions followed by a grading rubric. I’ll be honest; when I receive a large assignment like this it can seem a little frightening. It might seem big and scary, but here are three simple strategies I use to make assignments more manageable and help get the ball rolling.

  1. The topic-tackling strategy

A roadblock to getting started can be choosing a topic to write about, especially when your assignment is largely open-ended. I find that choosing a topic is one of the hardest parts of the writing process, so I start by brainstorming. In my brainstorming session, I think of anything that could remotely answer the prompt, and I write it down. I don’t weed out ideas just yet; I only write them down. Once I’ve compiled a list of ideas I start to think them out by creating a set of criteria that my topic must meet. For example, for a science paper, I’ll look at how much research has been done on my proposed topic and check to see if it is still relevant to today’s academic discussion. Using my criteria, I then narrow my brainstorming list to a few choice topics. With a list of choice topics made, I begin my exploratory research to get to know them better.

  1. The research reviewing strategy

The library is my best friend when it comes to getting to know my topic. The more exploratory research I do, the more I tend to get a sense of the right topic to pursue. Once I’ve narrowed down my ideas to a topic that will meet my criteria and pertains to the assignment, I start my research. Research poses its own set of challenges, but don’t be alarmed—the writing tutors and librarians are all research wizzes. They are there to help you, and they have some pretty neat tricks to make your research process a little less painful!

  1. The checklist strategy

One strategy that I find incredibly helpful for lengthy prompts is the checklist approach. This strategy works best for assignments that have a lot of individual requirements within them. For example, your assignment might ask for the following: a double-spaced five-page paper in MLA format, with a title page, seven sources, one block quote, and a self-assessment. This long list of tasks is hiding in your page-long prompt. You can make more sense of it using the checklist approach. Highlight each task within the assignment and put a checkbox next to it. As you work through the assignment, you can reference your checklist and mark off the individual boxes. I like to add my own to-dos to my assignment, i.e. “read through it out loud” or “double check your boxes.” Once all your boxes have been checked, your assignment should be complete!

Don’t forget, if at any point you find yourself needing help, the librarians and writing tutors are here for you. Bring us your questions and papers; we love to help.

Bubba Sugarman is a sophomore business major who has trouble saying no to new things. He enjoys playing rugby, beekeeping, blacksmithing, bull riding, surfing, flying helicopters, playing cello, working as a writing tutor, woodworking, welding, flying planes, baking, shearing sheep, and procrastinating. As a tutor, Bubba wants to make the tutor café as inviting as possible for all students. Even if you don’t have questions, come hang out with us, we get lonely sometimes.

The starting line

by Marie Sherman

Regardless of the page count, number of required reference resources, topic complexity, or prior writing experience, oftentimes I find that the hardest part of trying to work on a new writing assignment is figuring out where to begin! Well, since the semester has certainly begun rolling, and many of us are having to start big papers, here are some strategies to help get you writing.

Your first step should be to make sure you understand the assignment. Read through it and highlight the important aspects; the different requirements, due dates, formatting style and other helpful tips provided by your professor (take a look at this helpful blog post about using the Assignment sheet as a checklist!). Be sure you make note of any questions you have and find a helpful resource to talk to: your professor, a TA, or a writing tutor (we’re always happy to help)! Once you are confident that you have a clear sense of what you’re supposed to do, it’s time to embark on your writing journey.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I don’t have a verifiable source on this, but an ancient writing tutor probably said, “An essay of a thousand pages begins with a single word.”

Hopefully you don’t have any thousand-page essays to write this semester, but in order to begin writing anything, you have to start somewhere. Something that can be very helpful is to begin by simply getting any ideas you have out on a page. This can take place in many ways: doing a free write, jotting down notes, creating a mind map (a diagram of your ideas combining the use of words, symbols, and arrows – see a previous Write On blog post about Getting your thoughts on paper )… whatever you can do to begin thinking about your topic and all the possible directions you could go. Take as much time as you need with this part of the process. Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times you may want to spend a few hours sorting through your thoughts. Keep in mind that depending on the type of paper you are writing, it can be helpful to do this step once you have already done some initial reading, or whilst you are doing your research.

After you have accumulated some starter ideas, you can begin to lay the foundation for your paper. Take a look at what you’ve written and find the big idea(s) that resonate most with you. You can also look for connections between your ideas and highlight them. Once you know what you want to focus on, then you can move forward with planning your paper and dive right into writing (check out tips on Making an outline). All the best with your journey!

Marie Sherman is a sophomore at Principia College studying education and global studies. When not writing, she is probably running around campus or dancing!

What can a tutor do for you?

Zoë Mahler

Welcome back! The spring semester is underway and if you’re anything like me, then you’ll have found that you already have more homework than you’d initially anticipated. I already have two paper assignments and it’s only Week 2. But, have no fear, because your tutors are prepped and ready to lend you a hand!

So, if you didn’t find yourself in the tutor café in the library last semester, then here’s a quick guide to let you know everything a tutor can provide for you, should you find yourself in need of assistance.

First off, tutors are here to help. We aren’t here to criticize; we’re here to use as a resource. Tutors often act as a bridge between the professor and student. If you are having any difficulty knowing whether or not you’ve checked all the boxes on a rubric, tutors can help you review your work through multiple methods until both you and the tutor are sure you’ve set a good base for your paper and then elaborated on it.

Tutors are also trained to help with the databases in the library. If you’re in need of more sources for a paper, then tutors can help you search for and find credible sources from the multiple databases the library provides. (Here are some helpful blogs specifically on research.)

If you are in need of any help with citations, (MLA, APA, Chicago, SBL, or CSE) tutors not only have handy-dandy citation guides you can take home with you, but also have been trained in how to best present an annotated bibliography, works cited page, and footnotes.

And though this all sounds very specific, you can also just come to a tutor if you’d just like someone to read over your paper and give you some feedback. Tutors aren’t going to take your paper and revise it for you, but the process in which both you and the tutor go through your paper will not only help you with the paper you’re working on, but can provide you with the resources and tools to do well on the rest of your following papers.

The tutor station is open from 8 to 11pm, Sunday through Thursday. You can sign up at the tutor station for a half-hour slot, or you can just show up! We are more than happy to help you and look forward to seeing your work!


Zoë Mahler is a senior from Minneapolis, Minnesota working toward a double major in art history and mass communications and a minor in religion. This summer she will be a part of the archaeological dig taking place in Malta. 

Asking the right research questions

by Samantha Bronkar

If you receive a research paper assignment and are

–  not sure where to start and/or

–  unfamiliar with the topic,

you can start by asking questions!

Here are a few I find helpful to this process:

Why ask a question instead of going right for the thesis?

  • A research question provides clarity for your searches.
  • Unlike a research topic, a research question lets you to explore what you are interested in even if you don’t know what you are looking for.
  • Asking a question takes the pressure off because you don’t need to know the answers right away.
  • It comes from your interest.


How do I develop a research question?

  • Consider the scope of your paper: Is it a two-page reflection? or a ten-page analysis?
  • Consider research: Do I need to look at outside sources to answer this question? If so, how many?
  • Consider breadth: Are these questions too broad or too narrow?


How do I know if questions are too broad?

  • The question addresses too many sub-topics at once.
  • You cannot answer the question fully, even after several research attempts.
  • e., What happened during the Middle Ages?


How do I know if questions are too narrow?

  • The question only addresses one date, location, person, idea.
  • You can answer the question with a simple search.
  • e., When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?


Here is an example:

If your assignment is to write a four to six-page paper on some aspect of William Wordsworth’s poetry, you could ask:

  1. How did William Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister, Dorothy, influence his writing?
  2. How did the [social or political] context of Wordsworth’s time influence his writing?
  3. How did the location of Wordsworth’s home influence his writing?


Key concepts to remember:

Consider these ideas the next time you ask a question:

  • Scope
  • Research
  • Breadth


Samantha Bronkar is a senior on the softball team and will be participating in the England Abroad in fall 2017.   

Unlocking the secrets of databases

by Jessica Barker

Now that the semester is in full swing, many of us are beginning to think about upcoming research papers. Unfortunately, the task of researching can sometimes seem daunting, especially when you are trying to find information about an unfamiliar topic. Luckily, there are three simple database search tools you can use to help make the research process a breeze!

  1. Proximity Operators

A proximity operator is a tool that you can use to find articles that contain your search terms within a certain number of words of each other.  Some examples of proximity operators are W/S (within sentence), W/P (within paragraph), W/# (i.e. W/3 is within 3 words), and N/# or NEAR # (i.e. N/5 or NEAR 5 means near 5 words of each other). To use a proximity operator, all you have to do is place the operator in between your search terms and click the search button. Some databases, like JSTOR, even have a preset list of proximity operators that you can choose from!

  1. Truncation

Truncation is the act of breaking a word into its simplest (root) form and putting either an asterisk (*) or an exclamation point (!) after it, in order to find articles that contain any form of that particular word. By doing this, you are able to broaden your search results. For example, if you were to type the word “education” into a database, you would only get articles that contain that exact word. However, if you were to truncate the word education to Educat* you could get search results that contain the words “education,” “educating,” “educated,” etc.  Although truncation is normally helpful, truncating a word too early can broaden your search results too much. For example, if you were searching for articles on economics and you entered Eco* into the search bar you may end up with articles that are related to ecology rather than economics.

Note: Use an asterisk (*) in most databases, but not all; in LexisNexis you need to use an exclamation mark (!) to truncate. 

  1. Phrase Searching

Phrase searching allows you to find articles that contain specific phrases. This narrows your search results and helps you find more articles that are related to your topic. You can use phrase searching by putting quotation marks around the phrase that you want to search for. For example, if you type “writing tutor” into a database you will get results that contain that exact phrase. However, if you type the words writing tutor into a database without quotation marks you may get search results that only contain one of those words (writing or tutor).


Happy researching!

Jessica Barker is a sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in sociology and anthropology. After college she hopes to use theater to create social change, and empower others.


Jump start your research

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Do any of these descriptions fit you?

  • I am not sure where to start in my research for a specific topic.
  • I only have a vague idea about the area I would like to explore deeper.
  • I don’t have a thesis or any background knowledge on my chosen subject.

Then the frustration has an end right here and now! Here are three starting points:

  • Key Terms
    Sometimes we underestimate how key terms and search words can help us in starting the research process. We can use them to understand what we are really researching, to establish the parameters of our interest, and to find the right material for a stellar paper. Sit down for five minutes and make a list of terms—synonyms and ideas that float through your mind about the general area of your interest.
  • Book Reviews
    Once you have your key terms, use a database appropriate to the discipline of your topic and refine your search. Your key terms can help you locate articles on your topic, and find sources that give you some more general information to help you move forward: reviews and book reviews. Just check the boxes telling the database to search for these in addition to articles. This has been some of the most helpful advice as I search for material for my capstone. Book reviews typically give you background on the topic or general area, names and further key terms, a list of resources besides the one reviewed, and a summary or in-depth information of the area you are interested in. All of that in a small number of pages. In other words, book reviews are essential to expanding your understanding of a topic, finding resources, and knowing where you want to go next in your research!
  • Definitions and Encyclopedias
    There are many encyclopedias and dictionaries found through our Principia Library website* that you can access for in-depth articles on specific words. These articles often explain the heritage of the word but also give a lot of history, context, and further resources to consider. Having a solid understanding of the key terms will help you branch out into new areas you might not have considered before and will plant you on a solid foundation in order to deliver a bullet-proof argument. Examples of excellent dictionaries are the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Gale Virtual Reference Library. These resources are amazing because, since you’re a student, you can access them for free! Don’t underestimate the power of definitions.

*To find the lexica or dictionaries on the library website, scroll down on the homepage to the first box, then click Dictionaries & Encyclopedias.

Anna-Zoë is a first semester senior working on her final studio art portfolio and global perspectives capstone. She just returned from the Prague Abroad is excited for the last two semesters at Principia.

Strategies for tackling long-term assignments

by Maddi Demaree

Part 1: Start Early and Start Often

Well, you’ve made it through syllabus week, congratulations! The good news: you won’t have to hear the same spiel about attendance again for another seven months. The bad news: you probably received at least a couple long-term writing assignments. Especially in upper-level classes, these papers are ubiquitous. Now, flash forward to week 13. You’ve known about this assignment since the beginning of the term, but all of a sudden you only have five days to complete something that should have taken you all semester. Is it possible to avoid such a troubling fate as this?

Yes! The best way to avoid the desperate eleventh-hour cram session is to do something I like to call “start early and start often.” If a professor assigns something to you at the beginning of the semester that is due towards the end that means they you want you to be working on it all semester – starting now! The earlier you start, the better it will be. I have a few techniques I use to motivate myself to work on assignments even if their due date feels far away.

Start Early

  1. Begin your work on this assignment NOW. No seriously, right now.
  1. Don’t just look at the assignment one time today and then remember over Spring Break that you should have been working on it this whole time – putting focused effort (even if it’s not for long periods of time) will ease your burden later in the semester.

Start Often

  1. Put in on your calendar.

Scheduling time into your day or week to work specifically on an assignment will help make working on it a habit. If you have a weekly calendar, schedule in 30 minutes every couple days to sit down and work exclusively on that project.

  1. Have someone help you stay accountable.

Tell a friend, roommate, or even your RCE about your goal to work a least a bit on this project each week. Ask them to check in with you at the end of the week to see if you worked on the project. Sometimes, just telling other people about goals makes us more accountable about working on them.

Stay tuned for some tips if you just don’t know how to start that long-term assignment.

Maddi Demaree is a junior majoring in education and political science. Last spring she traveled on the Finland Abroad.

Writing for a reason

by Jessica Barker

As the semester comes to a close and deadlines quickly approach, the thought of having to write a paper can become daunting. But it doesn’t have to put a damper on the rest of your semester. If you start to feel discouraged or question the value of writing, remember that there is a lot of good that can come from it. Really!

Explore a topic that interests YOU

One of the best things about writing in college is that you are usually able to choose what YOU want to write about within the context of the class. Writing doesn’t have to be an excruciating process. Look for connections to the topic that interest YOU. They’re there, but it might take a willingness to look on your part. Plus, when you are writing about a topic that you are passionate about, the writing process can fly by!

Good practice for college and beyond

If you find yourself writing about a topic that you don’t find particularly interesting, it can be difficult to enjoy the writing process. But this work is not pointless. Honest! You might end up developing a new skill or learning about a subject that you wouldn’t have otherwise researched. You never know, this knowledge might come in handy one day. There might come a time when you need to use research skills, or when your growth as a writer benefits you in another class or in a job after college.

Contribute to the academic community

Although it may seem as though your professors just want you to regurgitate information, most of them would rather read about your discoveries and your ideas on a topic. If you write with this sense of curiosity and discovery, whatever you write about stands to affect your readers and therefore impact that field of study. That’s empowering. Your work is not worthless, and it is not busywork. It is valuable, and it can be powerful!


Jessica Barker is a sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in sociology and anthropology. After college she hopes to use theater to create social change and empower others.





Need some motivation?

By Camille Pruvost

“Mind alone possesses all faculties, perception, and comprehension.”

– Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy 488:23 –

It’s that time of the year again. Papers and projects have begun piling up, the sun is setting at 5:00pm, the weather has turned chilly, and you’re soooooooo done with school. But before you start dreaming of turkey and Christmas trees, remember those papers aren’t going to write themselves!  If you’re having a difficult time motivating yourself to start working, here are a few tips to kick yourself into gear:

#1 Stop dwelling on it!

Thinking about how much work you have left to do isn’t going to make it magically disappear. I know, college life is tough. But seriously, stop thinking about it. Having a lot of obstacles isn’t a problem if you know how to react to obstacles. It is what you do that makes you successful or not.

#2 Clean your room

Dead serious. Put on some funky music with a beat, throw in a load of laundry, organize your desk, sweep the floor, and make your bed. While cleaning your room isn’t as intimidating as a paper (I hope), it gets you up and moving forward. Plus, an organized room is usually more conducive to productivity.

#3 Grab a bite to eat

When was the last time you ate? Was it nutritious? Set yourself up for success and feed yourself! At least make it a snack of yogurt, nuts, or fruit.

#4 Take a gratitude walk

Nothing like a brisk walk in chilly air to wake you up and get the blood pumping. While you’re strolling along, make a list of all the things/people you’re grateful for and why. Spend some time feeling this sense of gratitude. Think about how amazing you’re going to feel when you finally finish that paper. Happiness in the present is requisite for success in the future.

#5 Take a shower

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

#6 Block all social media

Drastic times call for drastic measures. Take the plunge, and block off all social media and websites that drain your time (ahem, Netflix).

#7 You’ve got this!

Finally, realize that you can do this. Motivation will never come from outside of you. Ultimately, you’ve got to make a choice. The good news is that you are fully capable of finishing the semester strong and with a smile on your face.

Camille Pruvost is a Christian Science nurse in her junior year majoring in music and minoring in religion. Her music ministry serves to inspire faith and to facilitate ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. This winter she will be traveling to Vienna, Prague, and Paris on the Music abroad to further her studies.