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FYI 101/2: Traylor

Library resources for Garrett Traylor's First Year Inquiry students!

Getting Started With Research

If given the option to choose your own research paper topic but you find yourself struggling to choose what to write about, this guide contains some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you choose what to write about, and contains a large list of possible topics to help spark some ideas.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Choose a topic that is relevant and current: There needs to be a reason why you need to research this topic at this particular point in time. If choosing a topic within a discipline, look at recent issues of the journals in that discipline to think about what topics scholars in the field are concerned about. In a beginning composition course, where you are writing about a social issue, look at headlines in The New York Times or other internet media sources: What events have transpired that makes a particular issue important right now? What issues are there important conversations about?
  • Choose a topic that interests you: The best research projects come out of curiosity on the part of the researcher. You might think about topics that effect your community, however you define it, such as topics important to college students. You might think about a topic that affects your future profession. Or, you could come across something in your daily reading or daily life that you are curious about, and go from there.
  • Choose a topic that leads to complex questions: You generally want to avoid topics that provoke questions that have simple yes/no answers.

Keep in mind that there are some topics that are too broad, general, or have nothing new to say. You may want to avoid the usual social issue topics, including: abortion, the death penalty, gun control, euthanasia, violence in video games, steroid abuse, the SATs, the “obesity epidemic,” and marriage equality. These topics often lead to more simplistic research questions or pro/con arguments. Original takes can be interesting, or there may be specific new developments about a topic worth discussing, and some of these topics are included in this guide's list of topics, but be mindful of how you approach them.

While you want to choose something you are interested in, don’t choose something you have already made up your mind about. Doing so will lead to more simplistic arguments where you may overlook ways to make a more nuanced argument or overlook important evidence that doesn’t support the argument you want to make. After all, if you already know the answer to your research question, then why are you researching it?

The best topics will come out of your own curiosity and reading. If you find a source that says exactly what you want to say, however, then you want to change your approach to your topic (because why would you want to say everything someone else has already said). You might think of your task as synthesizing other views into your own view.

This material is adapted from Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin's Research Toolkit at the Hunter College Libraries under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

What is a research question?
A research question is the question around which you center your research. It should be:

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

As with choosing a topic, you should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate about.

The question you ask should be developed for the discipline you are studying.  A question appropriate for Biology, for instance, is different from an appropriate one in Political Science or Sociology.  You may also want to discuss your ideas for a research question with your professor.  The Reading/Writing Center on campus can also help.

Why is a research question essential to the research process?
Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process.  The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.

Steps to developing a research question:

  1. Choose an interesting general topic.  Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying.  Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more.  An example of a general topic might be “Slavery in the American South” or “Films of the 1930s.”  See the tips listed above for help with brainstorming an interesting topic.
  2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic.  Do a few quick searches in current periodicals and journals on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus.  What issues are scholars and researchers discussing, when it comes to your topic?  What questions occur to you as you read these articles?  You might also try a general web search to see popular takes on the topic or to gather useful keywords.
  3. Consider your audience.  For most college papers, your audience will be academic, but always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question.  Would that particular audience be interested in the question you are developing?
  4. Start asking questions.  Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic.  For example, “Why were slave narratives effective tools in working toward the abolishment of slavery?” or “How did the films of the 1930s reflect or respond to the conditions of the Great Depression?”
  5. Evaluate your question.  After you’ve put a question or even a couple of questions down on paper, evaluate these questions to determine whether they would be effective research questions or whether they need more revising and refining.
    • Is your research question clear?  With so much research available on any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in order to be effective in helping the writer direct their research.
    • Is your research question focused?  Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available.
    • Is your research question complex?  Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts.  They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer.  They often begin with “How” or “Why.”
  6. Begin your research.  After you’ve come up with a question, think about the possible paths your research could take.  What sources or types of sources should you consult as you seek answers to your question?  What research process will ensure that you find a variety of perspectives and responses to your question?  Consider creating an annotated bibliography as you gather research.  These can help you to organize the research that you find in context with your topic.  Writing annotated bibliographies forces you to think about the material closely and summarize it into a short, concise paragraph. In doing so, you are able to better understand the text, which is invaluable making arguments and for source integration.  You will be able to easily find which source contains the information you need for the various parts of your argument, and the citations are ready for your final paper.  This alone makes annotated bibliographies useful.

This material is adapted from George Mason University's "How to Write a Research Question" Guide under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Keywords are terms that represent the main concepts of your research topic. 

These terms are what you will use to search for sources (articles, books, etc.) to support or answer your research question. Keywords can be single terms or a phrase (if using a search engine or database, "put phrases in quotes" to search multiple words as a single term).

The right keywords are "key" to finding good sources.

When you are developing these keywords consider:

  • The most important words/phrases in your research question
  • How to describe your topic
  • How might someone else search for your topic
  • Do you need to use subject specific terminology
  • Synonyms

Start by identifying the main concepts in your research question:

For example, if my research question is: How is global warming affecting the polar bears of the Arctic?

The main concepts areas here are:

  • "Global Warming"
  • "Polar Bears"
  • Arctic

Then brainstorm related terms and synonyms for your concepts:

  • "Global Warming":

    • "Climate Change"
    • "Greenhouse Effect" / "Greenhouse Gases"
    • "Atmospheric Change"
    • "Global Temperature Change"
  • "Polar Bears":
    • "Endangered Species"
    • "Arctic Mammals"
  • Arctic:
    • Habitats
    • "Sea Ice"
    • Specific Locations – Alaska, Canada, Greenland, etc.

This material is adapted from Charleston Southern University's Rivers Library "Where to Start Your Research" Guide under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Mind Maps are a great tool for effectively accessing natural creativity, harnessing that creativity for effective problem solving, and for helping to plan and organize essays.  Mind Maps work in the same way as your brain, meaning that when you have a thought – this could be an image, a word or a feeling – this instantly sparks off hundreds of connecting ideas.  The main branches of the Mind Map can be used in a variety of ways to support thinking about core concepts.  By creating a Mind Map to plan your essay, you generate more ideas quickly and, with the radial structure, you can quickly see the connecting topics, main paragraphs and structure.  Mind Maps are just a way of representing this process on paper, so start Mind Mapping and you’ll find countless ideas flooding out.  When you start Mind Mapping, students should note down any ideas that they have – no matter how crazy or random!  This is where the best creative plans come from – so don’t be afraid to be off the wall…

Some possible ways the main branches can be used are as follows:

  • Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats:  This is a well known technique for getting ‘out of the box’ of habitual thinking.  It originated as a way of helping groups to get away from the conflict that characterizes many meetings by adopting different thinking modes, which de Bono categorized as: logic, emotion, caution, optimism, creativity, and control.
  • Edward de Bono’s PNI approach:  This is a simple way of approaching problems by analyzing points on the basis of whether something is ‘Positive’, ‘Negative’ or ‘Interesting’.
  • Questions: Making the main branches questions can often act as an impetus for effective problem solving. The usual questions are Who, What, Where, Why, When and How.
  • Checklists: One way of using checklists would be to take an item and use the checklist to stimulate thinking about alternative uses. Typical branches may be: Magnify, Minify, Substitute, Rearrange, Reverse and Combine.
  • Forced Relationships and Analogies: One of the main challenges for anyone wishing to be creative is in provoking their thinking away from existing paradigms.  There are a number of ways of doing this, such as thinking of similarities to or differences from some of the more or less random words.  The choice of words is arbitrary since the key here is to provoking thinking.  Typical words (branches) may be: Animals, Transport, People, Textures, Shapes, etc.
  • Attribute Lists:  Again, primarily used to provoke thinking by looking at existing problems, objects or situations in new ways.  The way this technique works is simply to list different attributes and then use the natural process of the Mind Map to think divergently.

Research often requires reviewing large amounts of material at a time. Active reading strategies can significantly increase learning new information.

Consider the 5 step SQ3R strategy from Metodes.Iv's Toms Urdze:

1. Survey – What can I learn from the text?

Before reading skim the material:

  • Skim the table of contents and find three to five main ideas that will be presented in the text.
  • Pay attention to names, headings and subheadings.
  • Look at the captions under images, tables, diagrams and maps.
  • Pay particular attention to the introductory and final paragraphs, which often contain a summary of the text.

2. Question – What do I hope to learn from the text?

Before reading a section, formulate questions and do the following:

  • Rephrase headings into questions.
  • Look whether the author has formulated questions at the beginning or end of the section.
  • Recall what you already know about the topic and what you still want to learn about it.

3. Read – Look for answers to your questions

  • Read captions under images and diagrams. Pay attention to highlighted information.
  • Be open-minded – pay attention to new ideas and differing opinions.
  • Stop and reread difficult and unclear parts.

4. Recite – Consider what you want to remember from the information obtained.

  • Think about what you’ve read and summarise the main ideas expressed in the text.
  • If you realise there is something you have not fully understood, reread that section.
  • Take notes, expressing ideas in your own words.

5. Recall – Reread your notes and link the information with your own experience.

  • After reading the whole text, reread your own notes and pay attention to the main ideas and connections between the ideas.
  • Link what you have learned with your own experience and other sources of information.