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Research Tutorial: Research

Research: What Is It and Where Do I Begin?

Video Transcript

Your professor has just given you a research assignment. You take time to make sure that you:

  • Understand the assignment.
  • Plan and dedicate time to the project.
  • Select a topic that is of interest to you and one that raises questions in your mind.
  • Narrow the topic from broad to specific.

First, you start stressing but then you think about it a bit, and you realize that you actually conduct research on a daily basis. It might not be scholarly research. But it is research nonetheless. Yeah!

For example:

  • You want to go to the movies, that is you have an information need.
  • You begin an investigation to find, locate, evaluate and summarize the information. Meaning that you want to find out about the movie, who stars in it, what are the critics and reviews saying, where it is playing, how much does it cost, and what time is it playing. 

Think of yourself as a detective conducting your own personal private investigation, going from source to source to discover information.

You are the sleuth. Take out your spyglass, put on the private detective hat and go!

With spyglass in hand you wonder, where do I begin?

Let’s begin at the beginning, okay? First, you may have heard your professor talk about the research process.  But what is it and what does it mean?

The research process is a process of inquiry that is, asking questions that reflect your thinking process. In other words, what am I thinking?

Adapted from and thanks to the New Literacies Alliance.

The Five W’s are a good way to begin your thinking;

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why 

The Five W criteria can add context to your investigation and turn a topic into a research question.

  • The WHO describes an individual or select population you are investigating.
  • The WHAT describes a specific aspect or element that directly impacts the WHO.
  • WHEN is a time frame in which you might limit your investigation?
  • WHERE is a geographical location where you might focus. 
  • The WHY is the reason why this investigation is important or meaningful. The WHY is not necessarily a part of the final research question but is more informative of the scope of the project in general.

So let’s try an example.

We want to research vaccine requirements. We can use the Five W’s to specify the scope of our investigation. If we want to investigate mandatory flu vaccines for school children in Kansas. The WHO of the investigation is school children and the WHAT is mandatory flu vaccines. The WHEN is the present. WHERE is Kansas. And our research question becomes “Should the flu vaccine be required for school children in Kansas?”

Consider your new research question in light of your investigation. Does it fit your task? If you are investigating “Should my five-year-old get the flu vaccine?” this research question might be a little too broad. If you are writing a book about preventing flu outbreaks, it is probably too narrow. If you are writing a five-page research paper about an aspect of flu transmission it’s probably just right.

You can also use the Five W’s to broaden the scope of the investigation to fit your task. If your task is to write a book about preventing flu outbreaks in the US. You could change the criteria in this way.

SCHOOLCHILDREN become AMERICANS; MANDATORY FLU VACCINE becomes PREVENTION. And you’ll need to change the WHEN to a timeline that might include the history of flu outbreaks, the current situation, and how to prevent outbreaks in the future. KANSAS becomes the UNITED STATES.

If your topic is too broad or vague you may be overwhelmed with information. If your question is too narrow you might not find anything at all. Before you start your investigation take a moment to refine your question. This step will help you focus your search and zero in on what you need to find.

Imagine the universe of information available on a given topic as water escaping from a firehose. You can use the 5W Criteria to help make the flow more manageable.

What is my question? Your research question is different than your topic.

For example, your topic might be racial profiling in law enforcement and its impact on racism. However, your research question might be something like: how do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

So think about what is your main argument? Does racial profiling affect racism or not? In what ways do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

You may want to think about the topic in terms of the personal or ideological, religious, or spiritual, social, or political, rhetorical, and vocational influences on racism.

You may want to start with a pro or con statement then move to more specifics. Then how does your research prove your argument? Are more questions raised during this questioning process? It's important to narrow your topic from general to specific.

Racism is a very broad topic and racial profiling narrows the topic to a more specific form of racism. Finally, law enforcement in the United States provides context.

Next, you'll need to investigate the topic by searching for articles in the library databases.