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Curriculum and Student Achievement

Gather and Evaluate Information

As part of the prewriting stage you’ll begin to gather and evaluate information or sources. This handout will help you develop a search strategy for your research paper.

Your search strategy begins with your topic or research questions as well as an analysis of your topic.

First, jot down your topic or the research questions that you want to investigate on some scratch paper or start a research journal.

Now, answer the questions below based on what you already know about your topic. Don’t worry if you can’t answer all the questions right now. These questions aim to get you started in the researching process. As you research, you’ll learn much more about your topic, so you may be able to fill in more of the blanks as you begin your preliminary research, and you may devise other questions. You may need to use additional paper for this exercise.


What are the details of the “problem” you want to investigate?

Who is the information important to?

What unique words are associated with your topic? (Include here abbreviations or acronyms.)

What have other scholars said about your topic (both those you agree and disagree with)?

Who (individuals, organizations, societies) or what (journals, magazines, databases) can you think of that might have information about your topic?

What words are likely to be found in the documents you are searching for? Or what key words will you need to use in your searches? (Another way of thinking about this question is to list the “buzzwords” or phrases that are common in your topic area. Include here synonyms for these words.)

You now have a preliminary list of ideas to begin searching. Where do you start? That’s a good question because researching is typically completed in stages. You may move back and forth among the stages, or skip stages all together. For example, if you completed preliminary research during the generating and refining ideas stage, you may be able to move on to the next stage. Or, you may discover specialized terms as you search through specialized sources that send you back to sources that you used during preliminary research. There’s no set time to spend in each of these stages. You may decide very quickly on specific research questions that relate to a subject that you know well, or you may need to complete quite a bit of preliminary research to understand a topic you want to write about. Let’s look at what happens during each of these stages.

Avoid a broken heart...

While you should enjoy learning about the topic that you’ll be researching, it is possible to care too much or be too interested in your topic. Before making the commitment to a topic, you need to acknowledge that the research may not agree with your personal preferences, and you can’t just pick the sources that agree with you. Additionally, you may find that adequate research doesn’t exist or is not available to you.

Preliminary Research

During preliminary research, you’ll look through encyclopedias, magazine articles, bibliographies, handbooks, and both generalized and specialized reference works. Your goal is to focus your topic and to learn more about it. Generally, these sources won’t be appropriate for citing in your paper, but they will help you have a fuller understanding of your topic.

General Research

During general research, you’ll look through books, general interest journals and magazines, and Websites. In this stage, your goal is to deepen your understanding of your topic and develop specific questions that you can research further. These sources may or may not be appropriate for including in your paper; you’ll have to decide on the appropriateness of including the source for your subject, audience, and purpose.

Specialized Research

During specialized research, you’ll examine scholarly articles from appropriate journals, databases, government documents or special collections, and online indexes. You may even conduct interviews during this stage. In this stage, your goal is clear-cut: to assemble a set of appropriate sources suitable for your writing situation.

You’re a good way into developing a research strategy since you’ve analyzed your topic and learned about the stages of research; your next step is to decide what kind of sources you’ll need. How do you know which kinds of sources to use? Unfortunately, there’s not a perfect answer to that question. The questions that follow will help you start thinking about appropriate sources for your research paper. You also may wish to consult with your instructor, check your assignment guidelines, or chat with a librarian to find out the most appropriate sources for your field.

How important is currency of source materials? Or, what is “current” in the field? (Currency in literature studies may be different from currency in political science studies.)

Are some kinds of sources more desirable in your field than other sources?

Do you need primary or secondary source materials? (Not sure about the difference between a “primary” and “secondary” source? See the Academic Center handout titled “Understand the Difference: Primary and Secondary Sources.”)

In your preliminary and general research, what kinds of sources did those authors use? (Search their bibliographies carefully and look for common sources. You also may want to look for sources that provide a unique or interesting perspective on the topic.)

As described in each of the stages, a variety of sources is available to you to provide support in your research paper, and your research can take place in three places: the library, electronically and on the web, and in the field.

The questions that you’ve answered in this handout will begin to help you develop a search strategy. Which kinds of sources you use may depend upon your assignment or your field. But more than anything else, they will depend upon the answer to the following question:

What kind of sources would my audience find acceptable and convincing?

The answer to this question will affect the kinds of sources you look for during the general and specialized research stages.

From here, this handout splits into several individual handouts that cover some of the sources that many students have the most difficulty finding and evaluating. Check out Find and Evaluate Internet Sources next.

A final note... Keep a research journal
A research journal is your space to record ideas in one single notebook or computer file. A notebook with pockets or a three-ring binder will allow you to add photocopies and shuffle materials, while a computer file will allow you to download files from the Internet and store files you’ve scanned. Keep your journal as you study a topic, then reread it and circle the topics, ideas, and examples you write about. Your journal can serve as a tool for the entire research paper writing process. Use it to house idea-generating techniques, sets of questions, notes from your classes, references, quotations, and your observations.