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How to Research

Define a Topic

Define a Topic   Effective research takes time. This page will help students:

   If you are unsure about what is expected about your assignment, consult with your instructor.

Step 1: Understand Your Assignment

Understand Your Assignment

Before setting out to complete an assignment, get to know what is required. Parts of the assignment description students should look for include:

  • Due date. Plan out an adequate amount of time to learn about your assignment, conduct research, create citations, and write.
  • Length. The length of an assignment will give you an idea of how much research you will need to do.
  • Citation Style. It will give you an idea of how to format your assignment (e.g., single-spaced, double-spaced, font, etc.) and create references (e.g., APA Style). If this information is not present in your assignment description, check your course outline.
  • Sources. This includes the number of sources and types of sources you will need to complete the assignment sufficiently (e.g., scholarly sources).

Assignment descriptions also provide useful context or background information that will help you with identifying a topic.

Source: Niagara College Libraries + Learning Commons Information Skills Online Handbook

Step 2: Select a Research Topic

Select a Topic

Carefully read over your assignment description
  • Have you been provided with options for topics or do you need to come up with your own topic?
  • Try to choose a topic that interests you.
    • Is there something that is happening in the news that interests you?
    • Is there something you have learned about in your studies that you would like to explore further?
  • If you have any questions, ask your professor for clarification.
When selecting your topic, ask yourself these questions:
  • WHY did you choose the topic? What interests you about it? Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
  • WHO are the information providers on this topic? Who might publish information about it? Who is affected by the topic? Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
  • WHAT are the major questions for this topic? Is there a debate about the topic? Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
  • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national, or international level? Are there specific places affected by the topic?
  • WHEN is/was your topic important? Is it a current event or an historical issue? Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

Content reproduced from under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License

Background Research

Start researching your topic

This process helps give you some background information about your topic prior to formulating your research question.

  • Review your lecture notes and/or course readings for background information.
  • You can use Wikipedia for your preliminary research - it often provides a concise overview of the topic with helpful links to open access (freely accessible) journal articles and resources. Do not cite Wikipedia articles in your final paper; however, sources cited on Wikipedia pages are free game (use our evaluation criteria before you cite!).
  • Perform a preliminary search using:

Develop a Research Question

Once a topic has been selected and you have performed some background research, you can start developing a research question. 

Why Create a Research Question?

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" (The Writing Center).

Creating a Research Question

A good research question will require you to analyze an issue or problem. Developing a research question that asks about how or why tends to be more useful than a research question that asks what or describe questions (Monash University).

You have already asked yourself the 5Ws in step a (Why, Who, What, Where, and When), next ask yourself:

  • Is my research question clear and focused? Does your research question clearly state what you intend to research?
  • Is my research question complex? Your question should not be able to be answered with a 'yes' or a 'no', but it also should not be too difficult to answer.
  • Is my research question researchable? Are there enough resources available to answer your research question?
Sample Research Questions
Clarity Focused Complexity
Bad: "Why are social networking sites harmful? Bad: "What is the effect on the environment from global warming?" Bad: "How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?"
Good: "How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on social networking sites like Facebook?" Good: "How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?" Good: "What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in the prevention of the disease?"

Sample Research Questions from Indiana University Library

Assess Your Topic

Narrow Your Topic
  • If your topic is too broad, there will be too many resources for you to sift through.
  • Fewer results that contain more relevant information is key when researching. Here are a few ways to narrow your topic:
    • Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.
    • Consider only one piece, or sub-area, of the subject.
    • Limit the time span you examine.
    • Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species, or ethnic group.
    • Limit by geographical location.

Content reproduced/adapted from under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License

Broaden Your Topic
  • If you are not finding enough information about your topic, consider:
    • Broadening the scope of your topic by generalizing what you are looking for.
    • Adjusting your topic to something that has been extensively written about if your topic is very new.
    • Broadening the scope of language used in search terms. A great way to accomplish this is to include commonly used words (keywords) from your background research. Also, consider using a thesaurus to find synonyms to represent your topic.

Content reproduced/adapted from  under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License

Step 3: Create Keywords, Search Terms, & Thesis

Determining Keywords

It will be easier to find information if you define your topic and identify the key concepts.

Step A) Take a look at your research question and ask yourself, what are the main concepts? These main concepts will become your keywords. 


The research question:

Do today's youth have a better life than their parents?

Keywords that describe this topic could include:

Do today's youth have a better life than their parents?

From this example, we have highlighted just the key words:

  • Today's youth 
  • Parents 
  • "Better life" (this concept is a bit tricky. You will need to determine what you mean by "better life", such as economic status, healthcare, area of the world, etc.)

We have left out all other words and punctuation (do, have, a, than, their, ?) from our key words.

Brainstorming Search Terms 

Step B) Think of all the words, or synonyms, you can use to describe these keywords. By definition, synonyms are words that have a similar meaning and are interchangeable. To make this process easier, use a thesaurus to find synonyms.

To show this process, we have mapped out several synonyms and related terms to our three main terms we pulled from our research question. Related terms are a little different from synonyms as they do not always mean the exact same thing as the keywords, but are useful for broadening the scope of your search. We have also broken several terms into narrower and broad terms.

Synonyms & Related Terms
  • Today's youth = teenagers = adolescents = young adults = Generation Z
  • Parents = caregivers = mother = father
  • "Better Life" = education = healthcare = finances = socioeconomic status = technology
Narrower Terms
  • Education level < Education 
  • Financial well-being < Finances
Broad Terms
  • Finances > Debt
  • Wealth > Income


Step C) Now that we have identified our main keywords, synonyms and related terms, as well as narrower and broad terms, we can start our background research by searching on the web or in library databases for resources related to our topic.

Often, a simple Google search will help you define your topic further.


Typing in our research question: Do today's youth have a better life than their parents? into the search bar of Google, we come across a very helpful resource put out by Pew Research Center.

Screen capture of the main Google page with a research question typed in the search bar

[click on above image to be sent to Google results page]

Using resources such as the report from Pew Research Center, we can flesh out more of our research question with new knowledge of the factors that make life different between generations, including education level, income and wealth, housing, etc.

Reassess Research Question & Formulate Thesis

Step D) Research is an ever-evolving, iterative process. After searching, you may find information that informs your research question and/or resulting search terms. At this point, you may wish to revisit the first two steps: Determining Keywords and Brainstorming Search Terms.

Alternatively, you may also choose to adapt your research question into a thesis to fit this new information.


Our original research question was: 

Do today's youth have a better life than their parents? 

Based on some of our introductory research we conducted in Step C, it may be more valuable to narrow our research question to focus on a more specific topic, such as access to education. We can rework our research question into a thesis to reflect these changes:

How does greater access to education for today's youth affect their quality of life, in comparison to previous generations?