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Research 101


How do I choose & focus a topic?

Consider the assignment requirements

Make sure you understand the parameters of your assignment and have read all the materials your professor has given you.

  • What does your professor expect?
  • What's the page length?
  • How many and what types of sources do you need?

Consider course content that relates to your interests

Often your topic will relate to topics you have read or discussed in class. Read through your syllabus or look at your notes to see what stood out to you and which topics you are interested in.

Consider the scope of your topic

If your topic is too broad, you will find too many sources and have trouble focusing your project. If your topic is too narrow, you will find too few sources and have trouble creating enough material to fit your project assignment. By finding a middle ground, it will be easier to find sources and create enough focused content for your project.

Consider asking for help

If you're still struggling to find a topic, you can come to the research and instruction librarians. Help is always available at the research help desk or by setting up a research appointment with a librarian. You can also reach out to your professors. They understand the assignment best and can point you to appropriate topics for the assignment.

Think of ways to break down your topic

If you do not have a focused enough topic yet, break down the topic that you have into the different pieces that make it up: the different people who are involved, the different disciplines it falls under, the different angles from which you could approach the topic, etc. ​

Drawing a concept map or table can be really helpful for focusing your topic. It lets you see the different parts of your topic at once and determine which parts interest you the most for your assignment. This is also a great way to brainstorm search terms.

How do I gather background information on my topic?

Reference materials will:

  • help you narrow your topic for a research paper or project
  • help break down a larger topic into smaller, more manageable subtopics
  • introduce you to controversies involving the topic
  • expose you to vocabulary or names of people that could be used in searches

Search encyclopedias (online and print)

Encyclopedias are often the best resources for finding background information. They provide brief, broad overviews of a topic and can provide you with potential sources for your assignment. Check the bibliographies of encyclopedia articles to find in-depth sources on your topic.

For online encyclopedias, Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Social Work, Oxford English Dictionary, and Points of View Reference Center are a couple options. You can search your topic and the results will link you to individual entries that will help you gain background information on your topic.

For print sources, you can use the online catalog search box and search for "encylopedia."  All reference books are located in the quiet area stacks with the general collection. Rather than check out a whole book, you can use the scanner to email yourself  the pages you need.  

Search online (Google, Wikipedia, etc.)

​While starting your research with Internet searches is not usually advisable for your major research, it can be helpful when doing background research. You have to be cautious of the information that you find, however, as anyone can post information online without having to cite their sources.

Wikipedia is a great example. This can be a good resource for learning about your topic and starting your research, but it should be used sparingly. Anyone can write and edit Wikipedia articles, meaning that you do not have to be an expert on a subject to contribute. That is an immediate red flag that should raise doubts as to the accuracy of what you find and read on Wikipedia.

How do I write a research question or thesis statement?

The easiest way to write a research question is to think of something you are passionate about, perform preliminary research to get useful background information, and try to notice any gaps in the existing literature. Lastly, think of unique or new approaches to the topic.

Answer the Who, What, When, and Why of your topic as you gather background information to help with this process.

Ask yourself:

  • Is my research question too broad, too narrow, or just right?
  • Is my research question about something I am curious about? Will other people find it interesting too?
  • Does my research question help address or solve a problem, take a fresh approach, or argue a point?
  • What types of information and sources will I need to answer my research question?

Remember: The answer to your research question becomes the thesis statement or the argument that expresses your position on your selected topic.

Where do I search?

Consider what source types are relevant to your project

​Read the assignment guidelines. Does your professor specify what source types or how many of them you need? Does your professor want scholarly/peer-reviewed articles? Primary sources? Empirical studies?

Consider the subject area. Book sources are most relevant for certain disciplines, like English and History, while for the sciences, often you will use articles only. Our research subject guides are always a helpful resource for understanding what source types are relevant for your subject area.  

Answering these questions will help you decide where to search.

How do I find similar sources?

Cross-reference or footnote-chase your sources

​You can often find relevant sources by scanning the reference list of a journal article you have already found. Scholars often cite other scholars who have done work in that field on the same subject. Find books or articles in the reference list that look relevant to your project and search fir them them using library resources or request them through Inter-Library Loan.

You can also find who has cited the work you have found by searching the item in Google Scholar. There will be a 'Cited by' button that tells you how many times this item has been used in other works. If you click on this, it will show you these works.

How do I get more/fewer results?

Rethink your keywords

If you are getting few results, your search terms may be too specific. Broaden your keywords to try to bring back more results that are still relevant to your topic. Try out many different keywords as well. Sometimes authors have very specific terms that they use that then will not show up in your results. Think of synonyms to your keywords or different ways in which you could frame your topic.

When you have too many results, this usually means that your search terms are too broad. In order to narrow your search results, you may want to refocus your keywords to be more specific to your topic. You can also add on more keywords to make sure all the pieces of your topic are present. Lastly, make sure you are using the appropriate boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to connect keywords.

Use limiters

On the side of most of our article databases, there are options that let you refine your results list after you have entered your keywords. You can minimize your results list by choosing peer-reviewed, full-text, specific subject terms, date ranges, source types, etc.

Consider where you are searching

View our Subject Guides for subject specific researching assistance and to narrow your results.

Certain databases, like the Everything Search span across multiple disciplines and will often bring back more results than databases that can be focused on one subject area such as EbscoHost or Proquest.

Rethink your topic

Your topic itself may be too narrow for you to adequately complete your assignment. You may need to broaden your ideas by thinking of a larger category your topic falls under.