Using the APA Level Heading Outline

Most dissertation students at one point or another become overwhelmed during research process. For many this happens during the review of the literature. There are so many articles to identify, obtain, and then organize. Therefore, it is important to have a system that builds your confidence that the articles you find you’ll be able to locate when it comes time to read and write. May I suggest a system that starts with the development of what I call the APA level heading outline?

APA Level Heading Outline

When organizing to write your dissertation proposal, I recommend you use an outline. The outline should align with the appropriate Walden checklist for your methodology and the headings in the outline should be formatted as they are in the dissertation template; level 1 headings (centered, bold, and title case) and level two headings when necessary (left justified, bold and title case). All of the headings are predetermined for you except for the ones in the literature review. Work with your chair to determine your level 1 literature review headings. The headings should provide a full description of the topics covered by your research questions. Here is the template version I give my mentees to individualize for their own study.



Using the outline provides several benefits. First, it helps you to know all the elements that required for the final product. If you consider each level 1 heading as its own mini-paper, the whole process seems less daunting. You can also use the outline as a task-list, and “check” headings off as you write them. I keep an outline for each of my mentees and I change the text color of the completed heading and insert a comment bubble with the date I approved that heading. This provides us with a bird’s-eye-view of what’s been done, and what still needs to be done. Last, I suggest the outline be used to help you tag articles for where in the paper you’re likely to need it.

For example, if a study has the research question:

How effective is technology-enhanced feedback given to doctoral students during the dissertation writing process?

the following APA level 1 headings might be used to organize the Literature review.

Feedback Cycle

Effective Feedback Strategies

Challenges to Providing Quality Feedback

Technology-supported Feedback

Social-Affective Elements to Feedback

Advanced Graduate Student Perceptions to Feedback

Now, these level headings can be used to organize articles when you find them. So think of each level heading as its own physical box. As you search in the databases and Google Scholar, you can tag or “place” each article into one of the predetermined heading “boxes.” This provides a process where you can do an abstract review, not reading entire articles, but simply identifying articles you might want to read and take notes on later when you write that particular heading. Some students print out all their articles, so in that case the box is physical.  But this also works with digital files.


(Thanks Susan for letting me use your box photo!)

You might also choose some way to better organize inside each box. Maybe you have folders inside your heading box. When you first do your abstract review, you might put all the articles into a folder titled “To Read.” Then when it comes time to begin reading, you add new folders. These folders could be organized by themes related to the topic, which might then become your level 2 headings. Or, you might simply label folders by article quality or the likelihood that you’ll use it. For one level heading it could look like this:


I chose to put numbers in front of the folder names, so the folders are always in that order. As you find articles you can save the pdf article inside the 01_ToRead folder. Then once you’ve read an article in the To Read folder, you determine how good the article is, and move it to the appropriate folder; Gold, Silver, or Nope. The goal is to empty everything from the ToRead folder and place it in another folder.

Saving pdf Files of the Articles

While we are talking about pdf files of full text articles you have obtained, I should mention that it is important how you save those file names. I have found its best to include the following;

First author’s last name—Few words from the title—Year

So for example: for this article,

Pereira, D., Flores, M.A., Simão, A.M.V., & Barros, A. (2016). Effectiveness and relevance of feedback in higher education: A study of undergraduate students. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 49, 7-14. doi:10.1016/j.stueduc.2016.03.004

I would save the pdf full text article using this file name:


Tagging Using Bibliography Software

I encourage doctoral students to use bibliography or citation management systems. Personally, I use EndNote. So with the level headings listed above, every article I read for this particular research project I will designate a keyword that first allows me to pull ALL the articles for this topic up. I choose to use “my feedback study.” That’s equivalent of designating an entire shelf for this articles related to this research study. Then for each level 1 heading I designate a tag that I will use consistently. Those might be

Fb cycle
Fb strategies
Fb challenges
Fb tech
Fb stud perceptions

So during the abstract review, I would be downloading the articles into my citation manager, and adding the keyword, my feedback study as well as the level heading keyword where it will help me. For example, it might look like this;


After the abstract review when I’m ready to begin note taking, all I have to do to “open the box” is to type in the keyword fb stud perceptions and all the articles I tagged will be ready for me to read.

Another important reason to use the level headings as a way to tag articles is that it keeps you focused. For example, if I’m reading an article that I originally tagged to associate with my technology and feedback heading, but as I read it realize parts of it also apply to the student perceptions heading, I can add another tag in my keywords line in EndNote, so it will come up for me to review when I go to read for that heading. Then I get back to what I was doing. I can stay focused on one heading, but still have confidence that the article will be there for me when need it in another heading.

For more on how to effectively use tags, read these blog posts.

Introduction to Tagging

Tagging Part 2

What tips do you use to organize your articles for analysis and writing?






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