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Research Tutorial—Part 1

Planning Your Research

Doing research requires a lot of time and planning. You should allow yourself plenty of time to do it properly.

You need a clear idea of what you want to do and what information you need to find. Doing the search itselffinding the books, articles, websites, and so forthmay be the fastest part of your research process.

  • You need time to read and understand the information you have found.
  • Your first search rarely turns up everything you need for a good paper.
  • You need time later to RE-search and fill in gaps in your information.

Finally, writing, editing, and rewriting take time. Don't wait until the last minute.

In this section:

Understanding Your Assignment

  1. Be sure you understand the research assignment and the instructor's expectations, which include:

    • Format, including citation style (MLA, APA, etc.)
    • Length
    • Voice (use of first person, etc.)
    • Sources (books, professional journals, popular magazines, websites, etc.)
    • Visuals (pictures, graphs, multimedia, etc.)
  2. Focus your thinking.

    • Brainstorm (or use other methods such as mapping or freewriting) to determine what you already know
    • Think about what questions you have about the topic
  3. Get background information and focus more.

    • Use your textbook or other class materials to help you look at the subject and how it might be developed
      • Use resources like the chapter headings, the table of contents, and the index for guidance
      • Use the bibliographies to help you find sources
    • Ask a reference librarian to help you find a subject dictionary or encyclopedia on your topic
      • Use the article's structure to help you develop your topic
      • Use the article's bibliography to help you find other sources
  4. Based on your brainstorming and background research, write a question or statement that you would like to explore in your paper.

    • Write out more questions raised by that question/statement
    • Focus! You are working toward the thesis of your paper

Developing Key Terms from Your Topic

Develop lists of "key terms" for your thesis. Most library databases don't work like Google. You can't just type in your question, and get a useful answer. So you need a list of key terms—single words or short phrases that capture the most important ideas about your topic. These are what you will use to search. Here's how to develop key terms:

  1. Break up your question/statement into the most important concepts (usually no more than two or three).

  2. Write lists of words that describe each concept and use a thesaurus to help find synonyms.

  3. You may need to think of specific examples, in some cases, and not just synonyms.

Example: For a paper on college sports, you might write out the following:

develop key terms

Creating Searches

Combine the key terms using AND and OR (these are called "Boolean Operators").

AND and OR are funny words - they do the opposite of what most people think they're going to do!

  • AND narrows a search down. It says "I have to find everything you've listed or I won't show the result!"

  • OR broadens a search. It says "Well, either one of these words is okay, so I'll show you results with anything you've listed."

In practice this means:

  • Different concepts are joined with AND. This narrows your search by finding only items which contain all of the words or phrases. Adding more terms with AND will mean fewer results.
AND narrows
  • Synonyms or alternate terms are joined with OR. This broadens your search by finding items which contain any of the words or phrases. Remember, OR means more.
OR means more
  • "Truncation" or "wildcards" are another useful tool when searching.

    They allow you to type part of a word and find all the words that start with those letters. Usually (but not always) you use an asterisk to truncate. This allows you to find all variations of the root word without having to search each one of them individually.


Searches can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them. Most databases have advanced search pages that make it very easy to fit everything together.

So for the example above, you could create a very simple search:

simple search string

Or a much more complicated one:

complex search string

You'll see more search boxes like this when we get to Part 4 (the databases section) of the tutorial.

Of course, this is a lot of information to keep track of. In Part 1 of the worksheet, we have two different methods for organizing and visualizing your key terms and searches. Go ahead and try both methods and see which one works better for you—one of the most important parts about learning to do research is figuring out what works best for the way you think!

Introduction        Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4       Part 5      Part 6       Part 7