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Get Started With Research

Use this guide to become a more skillful researcher. Learn how to develop research questions, choose credible sources, evaluate your sources, cite them correctly, and avoid plagiarism

Steps for Planning

Okay, you've gotten your research assignment now what do you do? Begin by thinking about your project and planning your research strategy.

Here's what you should do before you ever start looking for books, articles, or websites:

  1. Understand your assignment
  2. Select a topic that interests you
  3. Develop research questions to drive your search for information
  4. Focus your topic so it is manageable and meaningful
  5. Find search terms
  6. Get help at the Library & Learning Center

Understand Your Assignment

It may sound simple but understanding your assignment is one of the most important steps you take towards writing a good paper. Your instructor carefully crafted the assignment and may have even used language you can use to guide your search for useful information.

Pay special attention to:

  • Language - Pay close attention to verbs like argue, analyze, compare, or describe to guide your approach to a topic. For example, an assignment that asks you to argue requires you to take a position and support it with facts, statistics, and quotations. An assignment that asks you to analyze, requires you to critically examine your topic. Also, look for descriptive words your instructor uses because you might be able to use them as key terms in searching for relevant information.
  • Scope - Look for "multi-part" assignments in which instructors ask you to do more than one thing. Listing or outlining separate parts of an assignment can help you divide a daunting assignment into manageable parts. You also may see which sections will require research beyond what is covered in class.
  • Instructions - Take note of special instructions regarding format or length restrictions, information source requirements (does he/she require primary source materials or articles from scholarly journals), and grading criteria.

Select A Meaningful Topic

Generating Topic Ideas

Whenever you are given the freedom to do so, select a topic that genuinely interests you and/or is relevant to your life. Do a quick inventory:

  • What makes you tick? What defines you?
  • What problems affect you or someone close to you?
  • What do you think the biggest problem in society is?

You'll want to consider the following issues before you select your topic:

  • Will it sustain my interest?
  • Does it fit the parameters of my assignment?
  • Is credible information on this topic readily available?








Databases to Help You Pick a Topic

You can get ideas for research topics from several library databases and from the Web. 

Click on the button below (then scroll down) to browse our Pick a Topic databases:

 pick a topic databases button

Focus Your Topic

To make your topic manageable and meaningful you need to focus on particular aspects of it.

You'll get too much information if you stick with an overly-broad concept like global warming; you'll get too little information if you just try to answer a narrow question like What are the causes of global warming.

This short video to see how this is done:

This video, created by The University of Guelph McLaughlin Library, is being shared unchanged using the CC By-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Develop Research Questions

You want to approach your research as a quest to uncover answers to questions that didn't exist before. Seeking information to answer research questions is fun and it helps you explore your topic fully.

The video below explains why you should always begin your search for relevant, credible information by creating a list of research questions that will drive your research.



You can also check out our Develop Research Questions tutorial at the link below:


Find Search Terms

Using the correct words to search will help you find information that is relevant to your topic.

Different authors and search tools use different words to describe the same concepts, so it is useful to have a list of similar and related terms in your arsenal when you set out to search for relevant information. You can use the key terms in your research questions as a start for creating your list of search terms. You should create synonyms for those key words and keep track of useful search terms as you begin your search for information.

In addition, when you search for information you can search using Keywords or using Subject Headings. What is the difference? This video from the University of Otago, Wellington explains the difference well.