How to do Research for College Assignments

STEP ONE: The first step to research is developing a topic that is not too broad or narrow in scope. To begin, think about:

     •  what topic(s) interest you?

     •  what questions do you have about the topic(s)?

     •  what you would like to learn more about?

STEP TWO: To narrow or broaden the topic, add or remove a time period, place, person(s), event or subtopic:

Problem: Topic is too general and broad to address through a short piece of writing

   •  The Metis Nation in Saskatchewan


     •  Add subtopic and time period: The politics of the Metis in 19th-century Saskatchewan

     •  Add person(s), event, and place: Louis Riel and the Metis rebellion in Saskatchewan

Problem: Topic is too specific and narrow

     •  The representation of animals in sculpture by two-spirited Metis artists from Saskatchewan in the late 19th century


     •  Remove subtopic, person(s), and time period:  Visual art of the Metis in Saskatchewan

     •  Remove place and expand topic and time period:  The representation of politics in visual art of two-spirited Metis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

STEP THREE: Restate the topic using "who, what, where, why, when, and how" questions. For example:

     •  Why did Louis Riel lead a rebellion of the Metis Nation in Saskatchewan?

     •  How are politics represented in visual art of Aboriginal peoples in Canada?

Deciphering your Assignment Tutorial

This video tutorial will show you how to deconstruct an assignment to its basic parts and identify appropriate sources to complete it successfully:

When beginning a research project, it's helpful to explore the background of a topic to familiarize yourself with key concepts and issues before forming an argument.

One way you could learn about your topic and narrow your focus is by finding a Wikipedia article on the subject, then skimming its table of contents and reading that small section of interest. Doing this will help you go from the general topic of "climate change" to a narrower topic, like "How have rising sea levels resulting from climate change impacted island nations?" 

Some good sources to help you learn about and narrow your topic include: 

     •  Chapter sections from course textbooks

     •  Newspaper articles

     •  Short webpages found by searching Google

     •  Short videos by educational or government organizations

     •  Wikipedia and encyclopedia entries 

     •  Abstracts (i.e., brief summaries) from academic articles

     •  Library databases with introductory and reference information, such as those linked below

When doing background research, remember the following:


        •  Use tables of contents and section headings to identify specific sections you would like to learn more about

        •  Quickly read (skim) short sections of information, such as article abstracts, specific sections, and short entries


        •  Read an entire article, chapter, report, or long webpage from top to bottom

        •  Go straight to the library catalogue and filter by peer review

After you have selected and developed your research topic and question, you can use a concept map to use as a guide while searching for information.

Also called mind maps, a concept map is a visual way of representing how your ideas and important concepts are connected and interrelated.

Why build a concept map? Because it can help you:

      •  Brainstorm new concepts and expand your terminology

      •  Understand and process the relationships between concepts

      •  Plan and organize an essay outline or research paper

      •  Study for exams

Follow the links below to build your own concept or mind map:

A working thesis is a "rough draft" of your thesis that provides initial direction for the essay but will be adjusted and changed as you research and write.

As you gather and read more sources, you will find evidence that requires you to modify the working thesis. To form a working thesis, ask questions that trigger a debatable claim. 

Example 1: In using the theme of environmentalism and the topic of recycling, here are questions to consider:

        •  What does Calgary do with disposed electronics?

        •  What environmental risks exist with electronics?

        •  Are these environmental risks being taken into account?

working thesis based on these questions could be: Calgary should expand recycling programs for discarded electronics.

Example 2: In using the theme of reproductive rights and the topic of childcare, here are a few questions to consider:

        •  What impediments exist for working parents?

        •  What access to daycare exists in Alberta?

        •  Is daycare affordable for parents who really need it?

        •  What is available in other provinces?

        •  Should the government be involved in providing affordable daycare?

working thesis based on these questions could be: Alberta should provide access to affordable daycare similar to what is available in Québec.*

*Adapted from the "Student Papers & Academic Research Kit" Tutorial, copyright at SPARK at York University 2013