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SLS 1501 - Strategies for Success in College

Developing a Research Question

The first step for any writing assignment is to decide what you are going to write about. The more you know about a topic, the more focused your research question can be.  It's important to remember when you first start exploring a topic, that not only is it ok, but it's expected that you will revise your research question as you begin to learn more.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What's my assignment? Try to restate your assignment in one sentence, this can help you focus on the heart of the assignment.  
  2. What type of resources are required?  Do you need peer reviewed journal articles?  Books? Primary resources?
  3. What topic, that fits the assignment, are you willing to spend several hours exploring?  Even if the assignment isn't about something you care about, the more interested you are in the topic, the easier it is to write about, and the more you will personally get out of it.  Don't be afraid to choose a topic that is a little more challenging if you are truly interested in it.  You will get infinitely more out of writing a paper that is personally gratifying than writing the "easy" paper.
  4. How long does your paper need to be? keeping in mind how long your paper needs to be can help you decide how focused you want your research question to be.  It might make sense to choose something very specific if you only need to write three pages, but if you need to write fifteen, you might need to expand your topic to include related issues.

Now that you've oriented yourself to the assignment it's time to brainstorm for your initial research question.  Go back to your restated assignment, with that fresh in your mind, what is one question you want answered?  For example, if my assignment is to write a three page paper about how social media is used by students in college  what is it about that topic you really want to know?  Is it about how they use twitter to stay up on the latest research in their field?  Maybe it's about how they use facebook groups for peer tutoring.  Now that we know what we are looking for, it's time to decide where to look for it.

Choosing where to start

Where you start your research is dependent on three main criteria:

  1. What do you already know about your topic?
  2. Is your field multidisciplinary?
  3. How specific is your topic?

If you are just starting to explore this subject, and especially if you are just getting to know the field you will want to start broadly so that you can get a good feel for the context your topic lives in.  What I mean by that is that all research intersects with other topics and thinkers.  If you only look at your very narrow topic you might misunderstand the motivations and influences on your topic.  Further, you only know what you know.  Until you know more about your topic, you won't know what questions you should be asking.  If this sounds like the situation you are in the best place to start is: UCF Library's Primo Search, Academic Search, or Google Scholar.

If you are working in a multidisciplinary field, it's important to make sure that you aren't missing part of the picture by choosing a database that is too narrow therefore you miss half the picture.  Here at UCF, we offer an Interdisciplinary Studies degree and their librarian, Corrine Bishop, has created a great research guide to help you select databases that are ideal for interdisciplinary work.

If you topic is very focused and you have a good idea about where it fits in the context of the scholarly conversations around it, your best bet will be to choose a subject specific database. You can find databases by subject  on the library's website.  Remember, the power of subject specific databases is that they have curated a collection of resources related to your topic for you, but it also means that you might not find relevant resources that are slightly outside of your specific subject.

Designing your search

Ok, now that you've got a good idea about what you want to research, you know the requirements for your assignment and you've identified where to start, it's time to design your search strategy. The best strategy is to start with your research question.  For instance, if my research question is:

What is the best notetaking technique university students can use for recall?

The heart of my research question is "notetaking."

I am modifying notetaking with "university students"and recall

Remember, your first search isn't going to be your last search.  Think of it as a fact finding mission.  If you aren't finding quite the right thing, brainstorm for synonyms or other ways researchers may be using to describe the same concepts.  Here are some worksheets that you may find helpful.

Keyword Worksheet from the University of Oregon Libraries

Thinking Tool: Choosing a Topic and Search Terms by Kathy Soule and Meridith Wolnick

Here are a few tips: 

  1. If you are using a library database and find a paper that seems perfect, look and see what keywords the article was assigned and use them to search for other articles.
  2. look for articles that have cited this paper in their research.  Many databases with include "cited by" links to other papers.  If you are using Google Scholar you can check out the "Cited by" and "Related articles" links.Google Scholar  "Cited by" and "Related articles" shown