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Starting Your Research: From Idea to Question

Research is a Process

When you have a research assignment, it is tempting to jump into finding citations for your paper. Your research will be easier and more effective if you plan and search in phases.

  1. Understand the requirements for how sources should be used in your assignment.
  2. Learn more about your topic with exploratory research.
  3. Scope your research topic and develop a research question.
  4. Research to find relevant and high-quality sources for your paper.
  5. Plan your paper to ensure you have sufficient sources. 

Assignment Requirements

The first step is understanding how sources are expected to be used in your assignment. Closely read the assignment and highlight or take notes. Use the assignment to answer these questions:

  • What is the purpose of this assignment? Are you supposed to summarize, analyze, or evaluate?
  • What topics or questions do you need to address in your research? List them out.
  • What kind of sources are required or recommended? Scholarly, publication date range, specific journal or database, primary sources, etc.

For some assignments, you can choose your own topic. When choosing, pick something you're interested in that you want to spend time learning about.

Exploratory Research

Exploratory research helps you learn about the topics and conversations within an area of research so you can choose one aspect to focus your paper.

  • Conduct broad searches and skim the results. A good general search tool is Library Search or disciplinary databases recommended on Research Guides. Look for various perspectives from different scholars and experts. 
  • Reading background information can help you understand the big picture, identify terminology for your topic and point you to more sources. Scholarly reference sources can help you contextualize your topic within academic discourse and introduce you to subject experts.

You may not be able to identify the exact topic of your paper before starting your research. The sources you find and the themes you discover will help to shape your paper. If you’re unsure how ideas are connected or what to look for, concept maps can help you visualize subtopics.

Develop a Research Question

Scope your topic. Your topic should be specific enough that you can cover the topic fully and with sufficient detail but broad enough that you can find enough information.

Developing your research question is part of the process of scoping your research. Your research question should answer WHY or HOW. Fill in the blanks for your assignment:

  1. I am working on the topic of ______
  2. because I want to find out_____
  3. So that my reader can understand or do ____.

A good research question should:

  • Focus on one problem or issue
  • Be answerable in the time and space available 
  • Not make subjective value judgments
  • Open-ended enough to debate 
  • Contribute to the debate, but not prescribe one solution
  • Be original. Find your angle: look for aspects of the topic have been under-emphasized or apply  a different perspective or lens to reinterpret a topic.

Some assignments may already specify a research question. If in doubt, clarify with your professor whether you should further refine the given topic or research question.