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Research Toolkit

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Welcome to the Research Toolkit  

Are you new to academic research and not sure where to start? 

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You are in the right place! 

Like most projects, doing research involves using a variety of tools, skills, and resources. Use the tabs on the left to navigate between different elements of the Toolkit. You won't use all of these in every project, but in using any of them, you will build skills for critical thinking and analysis. Sure, you can pound a nail with the heel of your boot, but a hammer works so much better! 

If you still need help after using the Toolkit, contact a librarian!

Find a topic  

All research begins with you — your own curiosity about a question, topic, or issue.

You may be assigned a specific topic, issue, or argument as a starting point but it is up to you to shape your research question in a way that will be interesting. You will do your best work when the research is meaningful to you!

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A good topic is:

  • not so narrow that it is hard to find information
  • not so broad that it generalizes
  • not answered with a "yes" or "no"
  • related to the course content

Research is not a linear process. Sometimes you begin with one question and discover a new dimension to the issue you did not expect. This shows that the research process is prompting you to ask questions, requiring curiosity and revision as you go. You may loop back to the same process more than once while completing a research assignment.

For topic ideas try these resources

Get background information on your topic

Background information is helpful when you don’t know a lot about your topic and need basic facts such as key people, ideas, concepts, or events. Encyclopedia articles are great for background information. Try one of these online encyclopedias.

Wikipedia logo

Wikipedia is an excellent source for information about historical events, concepts, or important thinkers. Wikipedia is an amazing project in democratizing knowledge. Many articles have excellent breath and expert-level content, all written for general audiences. It is also updated more often that the typical encyclopedia from an academic publisher.

Many instructors will not allow you to use Wikipedia as a source iteself, but there may be references at the end of a Wikipedia article that you can use. Follow these references to find reputable information beyond Wikipedia.

Concept mapping  

A concept map is a visual diagram of a topic. Concept mapping is a great way to brainstorm issues and ideas, and can lead you to create a strong research question. There are many different styles of concept maps: some show linear connections, circular connections, or hierarchical connections between ideas. The important thing is that the map helps you "think around" your topic and supports your research process.

For example: Let's say I'm interested in "income inequality" or the wealth gap between people in the US. I start by writing down what I know about the topic, key issues or concepts. Then I start expanding my map by filling in questions or details. My goal is to build enough threads that I come up with 1-2 good starting points for my research. This might result in a solid research question or simply some threads that lead you to one.

Example of a concept map

How can I make my own concept map? Start with a pencil and paper!  Or use free diagramming software such as Coggle, GoogleDraw, Microsoft Word,, Paint, etc.


Keywords are critical for searching in research databases and the Library catalog. Keywords will determine whether your searches are successful.

Start with your general topic or question and identify the essential words. Always start with your natural language, or the way you think about your topic. Once you have some keywords, brainstorm synonyms or related terms.

For example, let's say you want to research how plastics contribute to the pollution in our oceans.

How does plastic waste pollution impact ocean health?

keywords: plastic pollution ocean

synonyms: plastic or polystyrene, pollution or pollutant or waste, ocean or marine (or a specific ocean?)

You probably don't need to search for all these terms, but searching for variations can help you get broad results. Then you can narrow your results as needed.

Stay organized  

Note-taking is an important part of the research process.

Use notes to help you construct an outline for your paper. Use notes to reinforce your understanding. Use your sources intentionally.

  • highlight important concepts or key phrases
  • write down questions as you read
  • re-write important concepts in your own words
Keep track of your sources.

It's a million times easier to keep track of sources as you go rather than try to reconstruct searches later. Use these strategies:

  • email a copy of sources to yourself using a database Email tool
  • download or copy links into a Google Drive document
  • email links to items from the Library catalog using the email tool
  • use the Folder tool in (most) databases to collect articles in one place. (You MUST create an account in that database to keep the folder live beyond your current session.)