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DHC 301 - Elements of Research

Research guide for Professor Ross' DHC301 class

Beginnning of Class

When I think about research for this topic, which of the following best describes how you feel?
lost in a jungle: 26 votes (20%)
captain of a ship and I know where I'm going: 5 votes (3.85%)
doomed, lost at sea: 20 votes (15.38%)
a detective: 56 votes (43.08%)
a cat stalking its prey: 17 votes (13.08%)
Other: 6 votes (4.62%)
Total Votes: 130

Be Interested, in Order to Be Interesting

The topics available for you to research are often dictated by various factors, such as assignments, classes, professors, or research agendas. However, even within these constraints, it is important to find a topic that grabs your interest.

If you have an open-ended assignment, browsing CQ Researcher can help you decide on a topic by giving you a jumping off point.

Preliminary Research

If you noticed, the first part of choosing a topic required you to do some background research.  Sometimes researchers select a topic, and then try to research it, often much later.

This can lead to a few problems:

  • The topic is too broad, or too narrow.
  • The researcher doesn’t know the specific vocabulary used to describe the topic.
  • Not enough has been written on the topic to complete an assignment.

As a result, finding information can to be frustrating, and may yield results that are less than ideal.

The simple step of researching as a topic is selected can often make the entire process much easier. This can be done if you follow these steps.

  1. Make certain to select a topic that interests you (librarians can help with this!).
  2. Read some background information on your topic.

And then....

  1. Create a research question.
  2. Do a test search on your topic, to see what is out there.
  3. Broaden or narrow your topic as necessary.

When you are doing background research on your topic you want to consult reference sources.  These can be encyclopedias found in the library or online; and yes, in this preliminary phase of research you can use Wikipedia.  Never cite Wikipedia in an academic paper, but if you are deciding if a topic interests you, go for it.  Just remember that Wikipedia is not consistent and while one entry might be accurate another one may not be.

Ask a Research Question

Now that you’ve done background research, your topic should be clearer. It can help at this point to create a concept or mind map that demonstrates the interconnected aspects of the topic and how they relate to each other.


Use the aspects of the topic that are of most interest to you to ask a question that your research will answer. This question will guide your research, helping you to stay focused. It is often helpful to revisit your research question throughout the research and writing process in order to maintain that focus.

Example research questions:

  • How has the obesity epidemic affected Native communities in the United States?
  • How has the economy of North Dakota been affected by fracking?

As you can see, these questions take specific aspects of the broader topics of “obesity” and “fracking,” and narrows them both into focused queries that a thesis statement then begin to answer.