Research Basics

Research is very time consuming.  Good research takes days (sometimes weeks) to complete. In order for research to be conducted properly, students can benefit from following a series of planned-out steps, known as a research strategy.  A research strategy is a systematic plan for finding the information you need efficiently.

Step 1) Choosing a topic

First you'll need to find a topic for your research. Topics that are too broad or too narrow make it difficult to find information.

Too broad
An example of a topic that is too broad might be "careers."  If you're doing research on "careers," then it might be more efficient to narrow your topic down to one or two specific careers, or one or two aspects about a career or about careers.

Too narrow
A topic related to careers that could be too narrow might be something like "retail management for college grads."  Retail management is a specific career aspect which is much more focused than "careers."  But "retail management for college grads" might be too specific and there might not be enough information.  Expanding your search to include "retail management" for all groups of people would make it less narrow.  You should be able to find enough information, but not too much information.

Step 2) Finding background information

The next step in the research process is to learn all that you can about your topic.

This is where background information comes in.  Background information is information that explains what is already known about your topic, and helps you to understand the broader context of your topic.  The most common types of background information sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries and other books located in the library's reference section

Encyclopedias are excellent reference books because they offer the following things:

  • an overview of the topic, providing you with definitions and basic information. Even if your instructor does not want you to use an encyclopedia as a source in a paper, you will still find useful background information within an encyclopedia that will get you thinking about how to focus your research and what questions to ask. 
  • a discussion of key words, issues, events, and people associated with your topic. There are words (and subject headings) in bold type found within an encyclopedia. You can use these words to help you narrow or expand your research topic. 
  • a bibliography or list of authoritative books and articles on your topic. You can look for these books and articles in the library or on the library's online resources.

Step 3) Finding your information

Step 3 is where your library skills are put to the test. Now that you have a thorough understanding of your topic, you are ready to find information that discusses and explores your topic in greater detail. This type of information is found primarily in books and articles.

To find books in the library, use the KCTCS Library Catalog and/or NetLibrary, both accessible from the MCC Libraries' website.

To find articles, use the print periodicals in the library, or look up articles from one of the full-text article databases (EBSCOhost Web, ProQuest, Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, Infotrac and/or NewsBank), all accessible from the MCC Libraries' website.

For more information about the libraries' information resources, consult the other learning modules in this eCommunity, or visit the library. Remember that you can always ask the library staff to help you find information.

If the library does not have the information resource that you need, but you know that another library does, you may ask the library to order that material from another library for you to borrow. All you have to do is fill out an Interlibrary Loan request form, and allow up to two weeks for your request to be filled.

Step 4) Evaluating sources

Now is where your investigative skills are put to work. Evaluating sources means investigating to make sure that the information in those sources is authoritative, accurate, and non-biased.

Here are a few questions you should be prepared to answer about any information that you plan on using in your research:

-Does the TITLE sound right?
-Is the AUTHOR an authority on that subject? (Check his/her biographical information).
-Is the journal SCHOLARLY or popular in nature?
-Does the book/article have a BIBLIOGRAPHY?
-Is the information up to date and CURRENT?
-Is the information OBJECTIVE? (does the author have an obvious "agenda" or point of view that they are trying to promote?)

Some students use internet sites as sources for their papers without taking the time to evaluate the quality of the website.  While there is a wealth of good information on the internet, there is also a lot of false and/or misleading information there as well.  Just because someone took the time to create a website about a topic does NOT mean that they are an expert on that subject!

Step 5) Organizing & writing

Now that you have the information in front of you, you need to read it, re-read it until you have a thorough understanding of it, and then pull out all of the points that you wish to include in your research. Organize those ideas into notes, and when you have enough ideas in front of you, you are ready to begin structuring them into a paper.

Write and rewrite and rewrite. Most papers receiving a low grade are not an indication that the writer cannot write well. They are almost always the result of the writer submitting a paper without taking enough time for proper revision. Put your paper aside overnight before making the final revisions. It is MUCH easier to catch errors after you've slept on it.

Remember to document your sources, using the style manual recommended by your instructor (usually MLA or sometimes APA). Talk to the library staff about getting help with using these style manuals. Failure to document the source of your information is called plagiarism and is considered stealing. The college has penalties for students who plagiarize. At the very least you will receive an automatic failing grade on your assignment, and you could receive an automatic failing grade for the course.