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How to Research

Just getting started on a research paper or project? Don't know where to start? This is the guide for you!


Develop A Topic

Get started by choosing and exploring a topic for your research, then narrow your topic to a research question you can answer.

Video Tutorials: 

Read Your Assignment

The first step is understanding your assignment. Read it thoroughly and note any specific requirements:

  • Type of assignment (essay, poster, report, debate, annotated bibliography, literature review, presentation)
  • Number of sources required
  • Types of sources required (articles, books, videos, etc.)
  • Citation format (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.)

Ask your instructor about anything you don't understand.

A useful strategy to manage your research is to keep notes as you go. Take clear, accurate notes about where you found specific ideas, and, as you consult sources and make notes, keep a list of the sources you used.

There are many ways that you can keep notes to manage your research and citations more easily:

  • Use index cards or a notebook.
  • Start building your References page as you find your sources.
  • Use citation management software such as Mendeley or Zotero.

Choose a Topic

Sometimes the hardest part of starting your research is choosing a topic, especially if the topic has not been assigned.

If possible, choose a topic that:

  • interests you.
  • you have questions about.
  • you'd like to know more about.

Check with your course instructor for suggestions, or consider relevant topics from other classes that have interested you.

Browse the Internet. Start with broad issues or topics (e.g., transportation) and see what interesting subtopics might exist (e.g., car-sharing, high-speed rail, bicycle lanes). Note the URLs of useful sites. See Find Websites.

Consult a related subject encyclopedia for ideas and concepts. See Find Background Information.

Browse general article databases such as Academic Search Complete. Scan the summaries of articles, and see related subject terms for possible keywords. See Find Articles.

Try these tools to help you brainstorm:

As you explore and choose some potential topics, here are some questions to think about:

  • Scope of your topic - is it too broad, or too narrow?
  • What exactly is your instructor asking for? Read your assignment carefully.
  • Will your topic work for the purpose of the assignment?

Read Background Information

Just starting a paper or project?  Consider using an encyclopedia, dictionary, or handbook to help you:

  • choose a topic
  • get an overview of your topic before you start further research

Background information sources can be general or subject-specific, and often provide suggestions for further reading.


Subject-specific encyclopedias contain entries focusing on one field of study.
General encyclopedias provide overviews on a wide variety of topics.

Use an encyclopedia

  • to become familiar with the basics of a topic.
  • to find key ideas, important dates or concepts.
  • Wikipedia might be a good starting point, depending on your topic.


Subject-specific dictionaries contain entries focusing on one field of study.
General dictionaries provide broad definitions on a wide variety of topics.

Use a dictionary

  • to find a definition of a term, especially within a particular field.


Handbooks are collections of information that provide quick answers particular to a specific field of study.

Use a handbook:

  • for concise facts and tips.
  • for instructions and techniques.
  • Search the library catalogue for your topic and add the search term "handbook" (ex. marketing handbook or counseling handbook)

Wikipedia is a popular online encyclopedia, but it is not always considered an appropriate source for academic assignments.

Wikipedia is, however, an acceptable source to use as a starting point and for background information.


References and links provided at the end of each Wikipedia entry can lead you to credible and scholarly information elsewhere.  Just be sure to evaluate the new site before using the information.

Narrow your Topic

You may start with a very broad topic, for example, marketing.  Soon, however, you would find there is way too much information on this subject.

To make the topic more manageable, think of some aspect of the general subject of marketing that interests you, for example:

  • Corporate sponsorship in colleges
  • Greenwashing
  • Marketing to children

Let's say that you are interested in marketing to children ...

You could further narrow that topic by choosing a specific sub-topic:

Narrow by ...
a specific item
  e.g. marketing fast food
a location
  e.g. marketing in Canada
a specific medium
  e.g. marketing on television
a population
  e.g. marketing to boys vs. girls

Form a Research Question

Once you have narrowed your topic, it can be useful to write out your topic as a question.

Each time you find a new source of information, ask yourself: "Does this help me answer my question?" 

Online Tutorial: Creating a Thesis Statement

What is the main point you want to make about your topic, in one or two sentences?

For the topic of marketing to children, start by phrasing your topic as a research question:

How and why do fast food restaurants market their food to children?

Your research question might then lead to a thesis statement (or research statement) such as:

It is unethical for fast food restaurants to use incentives such as toys and persuasive cartoon characters to encourage children to eat unhealthy food.

Your research question or thesis statement will help you decide on a direction for your research.  

As you progress through the process of finding information, you may find your question or thesis statement needs to be revised to accommodate new information or a different angle on your topic.

Three questions to ask about your thesis statement:

  1. "Does the thesis define a specific topic?
  2. Does the thesis make a strong point about the topic?
  3. Does the thesis provide a blueprint for the paper's development?"

From Hult, C. A. (2003). The new century handbook. Toronto,ON: Longman. p. 50.