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Starting Your Research: From Idea to Question

Research is a Process

You may have some notion about what you want to study. The first step on the research journey is to move from a general idea to a specific, researchable question. 

Assignment Requirements

  • Highlight keywords in the assignment. Look for action verbs, lists, and other key words that tell you what the instructor is looking for.
  • Why did your instructor give you this assignment? Is it to summarize or describe information? Is it to compare, contrast, interpret, or analyze? Something else?
  • Who is the audience? Beyond the instructor, who is the audience for your writing? What expectations would the audience have? What would they know or not know? 
  • What role are you being asked to take on? Informed expert, advocate, witness?

Your Interests 

  • Choose something you're interested in. You're going to be spending a lot of time thinking about this topic.
  • What insights might you have from your own experience or interest?
  • What personal connections do you have?
  • What do you want to learn?


  • Why is this worthwhile to study?
  • What impact might this have and on whom?

Background Knowledge

The goal of gathering background knowledge is to learn enough about a topic so you can choose one aspect on which to focus for your paper/project. 

  • What background info, terminology, and concepts are important for understanding the topic?
  • What conversations are people having and how might you add to that conversation?
  • How have others addressed similar topics and structured their writing?
  • What sources are cited or referred to repeatedly?

Consider using one of the concept mapping tools linked from this page to visualize or organize your discoveries.

Your Contribution

As you are discovering background knowledge, try to imagine how your ideas fit into this conversation.

  • What do you want to explore more?
  • What do you want to become an expert in?
  • What information can you find related to your topic that helps you scope or refine what you're looking for? (Your librarian is happy to help with this.)

The goal at this point is to learn enough to ask an intelligent question about your topic. 

Suggested Resources

More Ways to Learn