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Research Help: Planning Research

Steps for Planning your Research

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 Web sites:

  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 management and meaningful
  5. Choose the right words to use in your searches (search terms)

Follow the numbered sections on this page to learn more about what you can do to prepare yourself to have a fun, rewarding, and productive research process.


1. Understanding your Assignment

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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.


2. Selecting a Topic

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

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?

Check out these webites for more information on choosing a topic:

You can get ideas for research topics from several Mercyhurst Library's resources and from the Web:


3. Developing Research Questions

When you research a topic you should uncover answers to questions that didn't exist before.

The Bedford Researcher has developed a worksheet to help researchers develope and evaluate their research questions:

Developing and Refining a Research Question

Check out this video by Modesto Junior College Librarian, Kathleen Ennis, where she explains why you should always begin your search for relevant, credible information by creating a list of research questions that will drive your research quest:


4. Focusing your Topic

To make your topic manageable and meaningful you need to focus on particular aspects of it. Depending on your assignment, you probably don't want to choose a topic that is too broad like Green Energy, or a topic that's too narrow like the Effects of Green Energy on the Economy of Rural Pennsylvannia. Your research questions will help you identify the various aspects of your topic so that you can approach it from different angles, but your research questions aren't your topic.

Colorado State University Libraries offers tips you can use to focus your topic in their tutorial:

Five Steps to Better Research


5. Choosing Search Terms

Using the correct words to search will help you find relevant information.  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 mind when you set out to search for relevant information. 

The process of creating these alternative terms is called brainstorming terms or concept mapping.  The University of Illinois Undergraduate Library illustrates this process well in their brief video:

Developing Your Topic with a Mind Map

Another tool you can use to is the Concept Map in Credo Reference:

Credo Reference Mind Map

Many of the Mercyhurst Library's indexes and databases have tools to help users find and develop alternative search terms. There may be lists of related search terms available, options to search by similar words, and options to limit searches by certain terms, so pay attention to the available tools when using these databases. EBSCO databases often have a Thesaurus or Search Term option as well which allows users to find and develope new search terms.

Avoid Procrastination and Plan Your Time

ASAP Science explains why we procrastinate and how to avoid or overcome procrastination:

Plan your time by creating an assignment schedule or to-do list using one of these resources: