Step #1: Choosing a Topic
Choosing a topic is often difficult for students. In cases where the parameters are well-defined or assigned by the professor, the process is easy. However, in cases where the student can choose anything, it can be overwhelming. In the COMM 2045 class, students can usually pick anything they want for the presentations they are expected to deliver.
When a topic can be anything, it might be useful for the student to not only consider something that interests them, but also to consider something that may help them build on work they may be doing in other classes. For example, if you are in a nursing program, a topic for a demonstrative presentation might be “how to tie a tourniquet” or some other first aid topic. Another example in this same field would be to do a persuasive presentation on the ethics of some medical procedure.
Students who are not sure what to do for their presentations should also consider using some of the library databases available to them to find a topic, such as:
These are just two resources that can be used. For further information on how to choose a topic, take a look at:
Step #2: Conducting Background Research
More often than not, the initial choosing of a topic leaves the student with way too much material to cover. In the COMM 2045 class, presentations are expected to be around five minutes long and the initial topic selected could actually be discussed extensively. The next step in conducting research helps to narrow the focus of the topic into something more manageable in the time frame allowed. The best way to begin to narrow the topic is to perform background research on the general topic chosen.
Background research is often used to ensure that the student has a more complete understanding of the general topic. Additionally, developing a more comprehensive understanding of the topic provides the student with possibilities for narrowing the topic to something more specific. As an example, if a student picks the Civil War as a topic, background research may lead the student to selecting a particular aspect of the Civil War to discuss in a presentation, such as “the impact of the Civil War on farming in the south.” This topic might also be narrowed by further research, and this gives the student a chance to discuss the subject in the allotted time.
Most background research is performed using resources that provide broad information on various topics, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and other ready reference materials. A couple of databases with reference materials that you can use to begin performing background research are:
In addition to these general resources, there are also a number of subject-specific sources available that can be used for background research once you have begun to narrow your topic. Finding a dictionary or encyclopedia in a specific subject can be done by searching the Library Catalog option in PeaySearch using the subject term of your topic and the keyword “encyclopedia” or “dictionary.”
Step #3: Creating a Research Question
After a student has performed background research, the student should have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. After developing a deeper understanding of the topic, it is important to determine what questions might be of interest. Choosing a question is the next step in the process of focusing the topic into a paper or presentation that can be covered in the amount of time allotted for a presentation or the number of pages required by the professor.
Creating a research question is also important because it provides the audience with a context for the work being presented. Even if there is no question written into a paper or presentation, it should be clear that a question and answer are being discussed. For example, if the student is delivering a persuasive presentation that argues for compensating college athletes, then even if there is nothing specifically asking “Should college athletes be paid for their efforts?,” the question should be obvious.
Step #4: Identifying Resources
Once the student has a more comprehensive overview of the subject area and narrowed down the topic, it is time to start determining the best places to find answers to the research question. To assist with identifying possible resources for researching a topic, the librarians at Austin Peay State University have created subject guides that have links to various databases, books, and journals that may be useful. In many cases, the student can determine the best subject guide by going to the guide that corresponds to the course they are taking. For example, if the paper or presentation is being prepared for a physics class, then the physics subject guide may be the best place to look for resources.
Although, it will often be easy to use the subject guides to look for resources, there will be times when a paper or presentation will be on a topic that doesn’t fit exactly into a specific course. It is important for the student to think critically about the work they are doing when determining the resources they will use. The presentations for the COMM 2045 class are a good example of the need to evaluate the topic. There is a subject guide for communications, but many of the presentations may be on topics that are better researched using other areas. In one example, an informative presentation regarding “the effect of COVID on unborn children” may have better information when using resources listed in the medical sciences, nursing, or allied health subject guides.
Step #5: Collecting Data and Examining Your Results
After gaining a better understanding of the topic by doing background research and creating a research question, the student should have plenty of terms and phrases in mind to look for information on a focused topic. Searching the resources identified in the major subject areas will provide a number of ideas for the topic.
To help with collecting information, the APSU librarians have created a few “How to Guides" that explain some ideas for search strategies you can use for finding scholarly literature such as Boolean operators and truncation.
After searching and discovering resources, it is important to evaluate any information gathered. The resources listed in the APSU subject guides, as well as many other university websites, have been vetted to ensure they are academic and provide access to the best information. However, if you are finding resources using other methods such as Google, it is important to evaluate the information you find much more rigorously. For information on how to evaluate any information you find, please review the library’s “How to Guide" on evaluating websites.
Even when using the resources provided by APSU, it is important to understand the difference between popular and scholarly information. The faculty expect that scholarly resources will be used for any papers or presentations assigned in classes. This guide provides a tab on "Popular and Scholarly" resources.
Step #6: Re-evaluating Your Research Question
For this step in the research process, it is important to review all the discovered information. It might be necessary to revise the research question. When there is too little information to support the answer to a research question, the student needs to either look for other variations of the terms used in the search process, or if the topic is too obscure, the student may need to try a broader question. Conversely, if there is too much information available, the student may want to examine the results and determine if there is a need to refine the question.
Step #7: Collecting More Research
This step is important if the same question is being used, but not enough information has been discovered to support an answer. It is also important to collect more information if a new question has been proposed. In this phase of the research process, it is also useful to explore any opposing research that may be found. Looking for contradictory information can ensure a stronger paper or presentation by preparing the student for difficult questions that may be asked by the audience. These potential questions may also be incorporated into the work being presented, along with explanations.
Step #8: Synthesizing the Research
In this step, the student begins to put all the research together. Reading over the results from the background research and the sources discussing the research question requires time. It is good practice to spend time processing this information before attempting to express the information. In this step, it also may be useful to create an outline organizing the information that will be covered in the final product. The outline may be tweaked a few times to make sure it follows the logical sequence that will be used in the final product.
For more information about synthesizing information, watch this video.
Step #9: Expressing the Findings
Every step in the research process has led to this point: expressing the findings. Whether it is a paper or a presentation, it is time to write an opinion, backed up with the evidence that has been found. This is a point where starting with an outline becomes more essential. In writing for a presentation, the outline can be fleshed out to include the points that will be discussed. For a paper, the outline can be used to create headers for paragraphs that cover the points listed in the paper. The guidelines for how to write papers and presentations will be directed by the professor in each class.
When writing, it is important to cite the information that inspired the ideas. Not only is citing important for giving credit to the person that originated these thoughts, but it is also important for providing a trail to the professor that shows how the ideas and opinions were formed. When you do not provide a reference that gives credit to the original author, you are plagiarizing. To avoid plagiarizing and the consequences that can come from even accidentally doing so, watch the following video.
The librarians at APSU have also set up a “How to Guide" on citing sources that has links to various citation styles such as APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, and more. These links go to webpages that provide further information and examples for citing in each particular style.
Step by Step through the Research Process
Step #1: Choosing Your Topic (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) This step can be notoriously difficult. Your instructor will probably give you the freedom to choose whatever your would like to write about as long as it interests you and you are able to investigate, detail, and argue a particular position. Performing a Google search is likely to overwhelm you with the immense number of results returned to you. Since current events or controversial issues provide tons of fodder for investigation and argument, there are a couple of resources that your librarians and instructors will guide you to for thoughtprovoking topics. This is an excellent point to chat with a librarian to help you settle into a good direction for a manageable topic.
Step #2: Performing Background Research (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) After you have decided on a topic, you may not be very familiar with it. In that case, you will want to dig into some background research to educate yourself and find a way to narrow your focus to be manageable. Here are a few questions to ask as you dig; keep in mind that the librarians you consult may suggest more.
• What is the history of the issue? How have events affected it?
• What are the arguments that recur?
• Which areas of study (e.g., psychology, popular culture studies, religion, science, etc.) have addressed the topic?
• Who are the major players? People? Countries? Corporations?
• Which terms, combined with the major search terms you've already used, lead you to more detail?
Places to look for background research: Newspapers, Encyclopedias, and the Web
Step #3: Devising Your Research Question(s) (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) After you have done some background research, you are more prepared to develop informed research questions that will not overwhelm you when you try to answer them. Keep in mind, though, that your questions may not have direct answers. Critical reading of what you find will present you with possibilities, and you may, often in fact, make logical jumps in reasoning to answer the question, using support from sources that you find.
Step #4: Identifying Resources (Time management tip: give yourself several hours to work on this step.) Now that you have been able to identify established, manageable issues (for the length of your paper) within your topic, you now have a much better idea how to approach it. Now you want to think about subjects or disciplines and how your issue fits best into one or several of them. Whenever you think about your topic, pay close attention to the issues authors address in your background information. These major subject areas will lead you to databases that have articles on a particular subject. Think about the following:
• How can I distill the issues and their questions into one- or two-word concepts? Are there significant recurring terms or phrases?
• What basic subjects do the authors confront? Pharmaceuticals? Government? Law? Health?
• For the length of my paper, how many subjects is it reasonable to address?
Step #5: Collecting Your Research and Examining Your Results (Time management tip: give yourself at least one week to work on this step.) After you identify your resources, you have to begin to think about the concepts and terminology you will use to discover the breadth and depth of information that can potentially answer your question. By “concept,” we mean a general idea, often abstract, of what something is. If that seems confusing, then that is the normal response. Essentially, we must assign a term to represent a concept. What's potentially challenging is that a concept can be named by a number of terms that are synonymous. For example, during each semester you are required to demonstrate what you have learned through something written or presented (orally and/or visually). This concept covers very similar terms, including test, exam, quiz, mid-term, “final,” and presentation, among others.
So, we must break down our research question into concepts and representative terminology in order to find the best information. As you do this for your own research purposes, keep in mind that academic research databases do not behave like Google, Yahoo, or any other open-web search engine. We must learn a different way to search, specifically using Boolean operators. You will most likely use the three most common Boolean operators: AND, OR, and NOT. Here is more information on search strategies including Boolean Operators and Truncation.
Step #6: Re-evaluating Research Question(s) (Time management tip: give yourself at least a day to work on this step.) This step is one that you will already have begun to consider in Step 5 as you read and think critically about the information in the articles that address your topic and research question. At this point, ask yourself the following questions:
• Have I found enough information to inform or support the explanations/assertions/claims that I have made?
• Has the abundance of information provided me with a new direction for my research question(s)?
• Have I found that my initial claims are unfounded and need to change direction and approach?
Step #7: Collect More Research (If Necessary) (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Steps #6 and #7 are repeatable as often as necessary, kind of like your shampoo tells you. The further we go in our academic careers, the more detailed and complex our research questions become. By the time someone becomes a graduate student and works on a dissertation, these two steps can be repeated umpteen times. A serious researcher can revisit his or her research questions and add additional ones many times over. You will, with experience, determine how many passes through Steps #6 and #7 are appropriate for your research needs.
Step #8: Synthesise Your Research (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Now, the fruits of your labor are all coming together. You have actually been synthesising your research in some shape or form since Step #2 because you have been reading and formulating strategies to present your ideas. The big question is, “how does it all fit together?” Stay focused on your research question(s) and look to the information in the articles (or books or websites that you have used) for the potential answers. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is there a straightforward answer to my question(s)?
• If not, how can I “read between the lines” and piece together information from various sources to construct an answer?
• Can I develop a strategy of support from the materials I have decided to use?
• Can I paraphrase general ideas and statements (more than I use direct quotes), which shows I understand each author’s conversation with me?
• Can I outline my approach in an organized and logical way?
Step #9: Express Your Findings! (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Well, you have reached the coup de grâce of the research process! It is time to write that paper! Of course, you've been “writing” all along. But at some point, you need to organize what you've written for your own purposes so it's more accessible and deliverable to another audience, including your instructor. If you have followed the research process in order and have kept good notes for each step, the outline for your paper should be a breeze. (Be sure to consult your instructor for advice and direction on organization.)
When you do work through drafting, revising, and editing, don’t forget that you must cite your sources, both in-text and on a references or works cited page. A citation manager can help you immensely by allowing you to store, share, and format citations. If you follow the suggestion to keep a running bibliography as you collected sources, this part is super easy.
Here's another extremely compelling reason to use a citation manager: you don’t want to find yourself in a position, intentionally or unintentionally, in which you have to defend yourself against claims of plagiarism.
Fanning, D.L. (2012). Research and stuff: Tools and strategies for the beginning academic researcher. In C.T. Jordan (Ed.), Open 2010: A composition textbook for WRTG 2010 at the University of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: University Writing Program, University of Utah.