Research 101

Many students struggle with knowing how to begin the research process. They might have a topic, but don’t know where to begin finding the information that will help them create a product to demonstrate their learning. While there isn’t exactly a formula for conducting research, there are a number of strategies that can help students get started, and make sure they are on the right track throughout the research process.

Where to Start

When students begin a research project, they often hit a wall before they’ve even really gotten started. Lots of teachers are picky about what sources students use (rightfully so…students need to learn to choose credible sources!). Because of this, sources that are often the most convenient, like Wikipedia, are often not allowed. Wikipedia gets a bad rap among scholars. It is a resource for the people, by the people. This makes it both an amazing place to read up on a plethora of topics that may be otherwise difficult to learn about, while also unreliable in a scholarly context. Anyone can add or edit information on Wikipedia, and while it is monitored for accuracy, facts often go unchecked. This is why Wikipedia is an excellent place to start, but not a great place to end.

When teachers ban Wikipedia from a students’ research options, it doesn’t mean they can’t use it as a starting point. It just means that the teacher doesn’t want students citing Wikipedia as a resource. But it’s a great place to find some direction for a given topic. Reading (or skimming) the Wikipedia page on a topic can help students identify their main ideas and generate questions that will help further their research. Students should always make sure that any information they are using in their research exists somewhere other than Wikipedia to ensure accuracy of information. Some of these more legitimate sources can even be found in Wikipedia’s footnotes!

The First Step: Ask Questions

A common obstacle students run into is simply not knowing how to begin research into their topic. Some may start with a broad google search of their topic, and maybe another term that’s related. But these types of searches are usually extremely vague and will either overwhelm the researcher at best, or take them off course from their chosen topic at worst. A great way to avoid this common pitfall is to start by turning the topic into a question. Questions lead to answers, whereas general topics don’t have quite as clear-cut a path. 

Create an Outline

Writing a research paper or completing a project is always easier when the student has created an outline. Outlines provide the skeleton of the project. Once they’ve completed their outline, the details, transitions, and final touches just need to be filled in. The structure that an outline provides is often the hardest part for students, since it requires a tremendous amount of organization and planning. This is where those questions from above can come in handy!

Use Search Terms Wisely

The amount of information available to us online is virtually limitless, and constantly growing. Do a quick search of “World War I” or “Albert Einstein” and you’ll receive hundreds of sources, all of which are likely to give you something relevant. The key is refining those search terms so that the results are specific enough. But be too specific with your terms and you might miss the mark, or not get anything at all. This is where the last step comes in handy. Once students have created their outline, they can use the subtopics they came up with to refine their search. So instead of a broad search of “World War I,” one might try “major battles of world war I.” And instead of “Albert Einstein,” one might search for “Einstein quantum theory” in order to refine the results.

Avoid Plagiarism

The most difficult part of research papers for many students is avoiding plagiarism. We have two options when using other sources to conduct and present our own research. We can either quote a source directly or we can paraphrase by putting it into our own words. Either way, students must cite the source if the information came directly from it. The only exception is for information that is “common knowledge,” which means it’s something everyone in the field agrees on. This type of information is usually readily available in several different sources, and does not need to be cited.


While research can be hard, especially when students are first getting used to the process, there are strategies that can make it a little less daunting. Asking questions, evaluating sources, and using smart search terms can make an overwhelming process more manageable, and sometimes, even fun.

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