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Beginning The Research Process

Published or Revised January 27, 2010

Topic Selection

Before you begin any research assignment, you must choose a topic or answer questions that have been assigned. Research assignments often offer you a list of research topics or a specific topic might to be assigned to all students. "Choose a topic that interests you" can also be the research assignment.

To choose a topic, there are certain techniques that can assist you with answering the question: "What am I going to write about?" These techniques are assignment, personal interest, other readings, people, sources, and preliminary research.

1. Assignment

  • Read the assignment carefully.
  • Ask your professor questions about the assignment to make sure that you understand it.
  • Be sure that you know the length of the assignment, know when the assignment is due and how much time you have.
  • Make sure that your topic fits the assignment – the instructor may want to approve the topic.

2. Personal interest

  • Pick a topic that you want to know more about.

3. Other readings

  • Handouts from your instructor
  • The syllabus
  • The textbook
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Books and journals on a particular discipline — scan contents pages and/or index

4. People

  • Your instructor
  • The librarians

5. Preliminary research

When choosing a topic, this is not the time to do a detailed search.

  • How much information is available?
  • Scan newspapers, magazines, books, journals
  • General encyclopedias such as the [i]Britannica[/i] or [i]Academic American[/i] can assist in narrowing a topic.
  • Search engines such as Google, Google Scholar and Yahoo have directories that list web pages by subject.

The topic has been chosen. Now what?

Refining and Focusing Your Topic

Most topic choices for the research assignment are too broad for a 3-10-page paper. For example, in an American history class the assignment is on the Civil War. There is a wealth of information, and the topic has to be narrowed and focused. The first thing that you do Is brainstorm - write down terms, words, or phrases that relate to or describe your topic. For example:

The Civil War: Battles, Gettysburg, Lincoln, slavery, state's rights, the south,the north, cotton, blacks in the northern army, families divided

The brainstorming technique might result in you writing about members of families fighting on different sides in the Civil War.

With brainstorming, you now have your focus but it needs more refining. Using the journalistic questions: who, what, where, when, why and how will help to narrow and focus the topic you have chosen. Another technique of questioning is the Bloom's taxonomy:

  Intellectual Skills Cue Works
Knowlege Recognizing; recall of information; memorizing Define, recall, recognize, remember, repeat, name, recount, specify, who, what when, where
Comprehension Interpreting; organizing and arranging material; describing in one’s own word Describe, restate, interpret, state in your own words, classify, translate, identify the main idea
Application Problem solving; applying previously learned information to reach an answer Solve, apply, demonstrate, practice, calculate, show, select, choose
Analysis Breaking down into parts; seeing patterns; recognizing hidden meanings Analyze, appraise, categorize, compare, contrast, criticize, examine, experiment, test, infer
Synthesis Combining ideas to form a new whole; generalize from facts; relate knowledge from several areas Plan, hypothesize, incorporate, invent, design, originate, predict, assemble, formulate, create
Evaluation Making value judgments; resolving controversies; developing and defending opinion Defend, justify, judge, appraise, criticize, discriminate between, evaluate

Some Tips On Choosing A Topic

  • Topic ideas can come from anywhere.
  • Choose a topic that interests you.
  • Make sure your topic works with your assignment.
  • Ask yourself questions about the topic.
  • Be open to changing your focus.
  • Questions are an effective way to structure a research project.
  • Questions can help you narrow a broad topic.
  • Questions have answers.
  • Interesting research comes from high-order open-ended questions.

Research Plans and Logs

Research takes time and it is recommended that a plan be made in order to be focused and effective. The plan enables the researcher to focus energy and the thinking process as information sources are located, evaluated and used. The research should achieve several functions:

  • Outline the main points to be researched.
  • Outline the information necessary to complete the research assignment.
  • Give the researcher the ability to manage time as the research project progresses.

The research log assists the researcher in knowing where he is and where he is going and where he might have to revisit. It is suggested that the log should include the following data:

  • Books print and/or electronic — author, title, call number and/or database (URL)
  • Newspapers, journals, magazines — author, title of article, name of periodical, date, page nos., database URL or print
  • Databases — name of database, URL, date found and data appropriate to the type of source

All the entries should include a decision about using or not using the source. A question mark (?) can be used, if a decision has not been made.

Some Tips On Planning

  • Plan how the assignment and/or topic will be approached and handled before beginning the search.
  • Think about resources that might be needed.
  • Keep a log of all resources discovered during the research process.

Library staff are available online to help you with all of your library and research questions.

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