The term "theme" is a small word, but it can intimidate students when they see it on an assignment or test. To overcome the fear and develop confidence, especially with regard to research papers, understand what the word means and see the parallels with any work, including poems, essays, plays, novels and movies.

“Theme” Defined

A theme is a major and sometimes recurring idea, subject or topic that appears in a written work. A dominant theme usually reveals what the work is really about and can be helpful in forming insights and analysis. A theme can consist of one word, two words or more. For example, your teacher might ask you to explore the straightforward ideas of “anger” or “selfishness” or more complex themes of “emotional intelligence” or “conflicted emotions.” Either way, careful reading of the work is vital so that you can marshal examples of where the theme was apparent.

Examples in Research

Themes in research papers might require a little digging, but they are there. Sometimes they are easier to spot when several research papers on the same subject are compared or contrasted, for this is when such subtext emerges. For example, three research papers on the subject of avid TV viewing by teenagers might contain different themes, such as simpler ideas including “passivity” or "grades" or a more complex theme, such as “effects on familial relationships.”

Seize the Opportunity

Once you've identified the theme of a research paper or papers, seize the opportunity and analyze it. Say that you like the idea of exploring how avid TV viewing -- more than four hours per day -- affects teens' grades. Further, suppose that researchers are in general agreement about the correlation but cast a wide net in terms of how they define “passivity.” You might set up a thematic segue for a research paper by saying, “Researchers continue to debate how to define passivity in teens and reach across the spectrum to include the number of hours per day they spend in solitude, the number of people they count as close friends and their lack of interest in hobbies and extracurricular activities.” Then you would take each of these ideas and expound in greater detail.