The challenge with any research project today is to avoid drowning in information. The first stage, then, in any research project is to define the goal and scope of the research.
Once you have a general topic, step 1 is to focus that topic into a manageable research question. Step 2 is to identify what kinds of information you will need to address the research question. And step 3 is to identify key search terms and strategies that you can use to search for information.
Completing these three steps ensures your research will not be so overwhelming. You will know what information you’re looking for and have some tools ready to help you find it.
Focusing the Research Topic
Usually, when beginning a research project, you have a general topic or area of interest. But successful research depends on being able to focus that topic into a manageable research question. What is manageable? The research question should be something that can be answered effectively within the scope or word length of the project or assignment.
Consider the template for focusing the research topic. These generic questions can help us start thinking about what we really want to know in our research. Also, by generating a list of questions, we can begin to limit our scope.
|What do you want to know about the topic?|
|What problems are connected to the topic?|
|Are the ideas clearly defined?|
|Are there social debates suggested by the topic?|
|Why is this topic important?|
Let’s practice using the template.
Consider this general topic:
Digital Literacy and Education
This topic is very broad. We could write a 1 page newspaper story or a PhD thesis on the ideas suggested by digital literacy and education. We need to decide how we want to focus our efforts by using the questions in the template. From that, we can develop a usable research question.
Answer the questions in the template. You can click to reveal sample answers when you’re finished.
Remember, however, that there are always many ways to focus a topic.
Identifying the Research Needs
With a broad topic like Digital Literacy and Education, we could develop many possible research questions. For the sake of this lesson, let’s work with this one:
Digital technologies influence how we gain access to information and how we communicate with other people. In the 21st century, what skills will be essential?
Clearly, this research question came out of the ideas and questions we had about the broad topic. But in selecting this question, we must leave off other ideas that we may have come up with. While they may all be significant, we cannot do everything in one essay. Longer and more complex projects can, of course, have more complex questions.
Now, what do we need to know to answer this question?
We need to make a list of all the information we need to know to answer this question. This list of information will help guide the research process.
Follow these questions to identify what information you need to answer the research question.
Identifying Information Needs (Practice)
Identifying Key Search Terms and Strategies
Now that we know what information we need, we can start to plan our research strategy. While it is tempting to type fully formed questions into Google, this will not produce the balanced and quality research that you need for academic study.
Instead, the next step is to identify key search terms to use in the search engines.
Let’s practice using a key word matrix. Based on the key words in the research question, you can generate a list of search terms to use as well as consider different search strategies (which means different ways) you can combine your search terms to find useful information.
Answer the questions in the Key Word Matrix to develop additional search terms. Try to think of as many useful search terms and related terms as possible.