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Understand the Task
To get started, read your assignment carefully and think about what steps you might want to take next. You will need to explore a topic before you decide exactly where you want to go with it. Be sure to take advantage of the superb Writing Center tutors (who can help you think through an assignment) and the reference librarians (who can point you toward the best information resources). Talk with your professor about your research interest, as your instructor can help you shape and explore your topic. Sometimes it also helps just to talk through ideas with friends or classmates.
How to Decode an Assignment
The word "research" means many different things. Research assignments might involve reporting on a topic, reviewing the state of research in a given area, reading and critically analyzing a text, or investigating and taking a stand on an issue. You might be asked to generate an original thesis or to conduct field research (interviews, surveys, experiments, or first-hand observations), using information you find in the library to support and frame your ideas. Read your assignment carefully and see if you can answer these questions:
- What is the purpose of the project?
- To what extent should I bring my own ideas to the project? Do I need to present an original theory, argue a point of view, or am I primarily sythesizing and organizing information in order to report on it?
- How much evidence (or information) will I need to gather?
- What kinds of evidence (or sources) am I expected to use?
- What should the finished project look like?
If you aren't able to answer these questions, ask your professor for clarification - but only after you've read the assignment carefully.
Doing research projects takes time. Look at your calendar and set realistic goals. Be sure you don't spend all your time finding sources - plan time into your schedule to read them and to write!
Exploring Your Topic
Spend some time mapping out a topic, sorting out what information is available and what others have said about your topic. You're trying to figure out the conversations happening around your topic - and identifying who's having those conversations. Try these strategies:
- Make a list of possible issues to research. Use class discussions, texts, personal interests, conversations with friends, and discussions with your teacher for ideas. Start writing them down - you'd be surprised how much faster they come once you start writing.
- Map out the topic by finding out what others have had to say about it:
- Consult the appropriate Research Guides to start some initial searches of the literature
- Browse reference books (main floor of library, Beck Hall side) for overviews of your topic
- Use online, reliable resources that provide overviews of topics presented by experts. We recommend Wikipedia (not always written by experts but usually pretty reliable), YouTube sites like Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell, or podcasts produced by experts about a particular topic
- Talk with your professor about ways you can develop the topic, including sources and scholars you should consider
- Talk with a librarian via Reference Services about useful reference books, books & articles
- Develop questions. Do two things you come across seem to offer interesting contrasts? Does one thing seem intriguingly connected to something else? Is there something about the topic that surprises you? Do you encounter anything that makes you wonder why?
- Draft a research plan. Write down what you want to investigate and how you plan to do it. Writing down where you plan to take your research at this stage can help you clarify your thoughts and plan your next steps. Be sure to browse this guide for ideas on where to search.
- Talk over your developing topic. Tell your roommate or another friend about your topic. Sometimes just explaining the idea can help you clarify for yourself what direction seems most interesting.
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