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Research Skills: Start a Research Assignment

Basic research skills such as finding books, journal articles, working with databases, citing your sources, and more.

Research Strategy

How to Start a Research Assignment


Search Strategy


Many courses will require you to complete some type of research assignment. It is important to learn how to use the library to find information that you will need to complete that research assignment. These steps outline the library search strategy. This library search strategy can be adapted to any type of research you are doing.

Step 1.  Choose Your Topic

A. Brainstorm

This might seem obvious but it is important to choose a topic that is interesting to you. Take some time to brainstorm about possible topics that you might want to investigate. Write down several keywords that describe your topic. Because you will spend a considerable amount of time completing a research assignment, it will be more rewarding to do research on a topic that you want to learn more about.

For example, to find information for a paper you are writing on computers, write down what interests you about computers. Your list may contain the following topics pertaining to computers:

  • Computer viruses
  • Computer software
  • Personal Computers
  • Hacking
  • The Internet
  • Computers and Censorship

When writing down keywords include related terms and synonyms. You will quickly see your research paper taking shape.

B. Consult Your Professor

Many times your professor will provide your class with a list of topics to choose from or you might be given the option to choose a topic on your own. In either case, you should always check with your professor to make sure your topic is acceptable. You should also ask your professor any questions about the assignment that you might have.

Step 2.  Find Background Information

Once you have chosen a topic to research the next step is to find some background information about the topic. Encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference sources provide quick overviews of a topic that are useful when starting your research. These background sources provide short entries on a topic and many also provide a list (called a bibliography) of other books, articles and websites on your topic. MCC Library has many general and subject-specific encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference sources in the reference collection and online.

For example, to find background information on the topic of computers, start with a general encyclopedia such as The New Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana. Look under "Computer" and you will find a definition as well as the history of the computer. Even Wikipedia is acceptable to consult at this stage of research, but always be critical of the information that is presented, especially on topic that may be considered controversial or political by some. Reading through an entry in a general encyclopedia will give you ideas on how to focus your research.

Step 3.  Narrow Your Topic

A common problem finding a topic with a definite focus. Many students start out with trying to research a topic that is too broad and eventually the topic has to be narrowed down by focusing on a particular aspect of the subject. Remember that in a research assignment you will only be required to write a certain number of pages on your topic and you will never be able to cover all aspects of a topic if it is too broad. As mentioned earlier, the best way to do this is to start out by writing down some keywords that will best describe the aspects of a topic on which you want to focus.

For example, after reading the entry for "Computer" in a general encyclopedia you may decide to focus on computer security. From here, you can go on to specialized encyclopedias like the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, or MacMillan Encyclopedia of Computers where you will find detailed entries for computer security. So far, your search looks like this:

  • Get background information on computers from general dictionaries and encyclopedias like the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia Americana or the World Book Encyclopedia.
  • Narrow your topic to Computer Security.
  • Go to specific encyclopedias like MacMillan Encyclopedia of Computers for detailed information.
  • After these steps in your search strategy, information on this specific topic can be gathered from other books, magazine and journal articles.

Step 4.  Locate Books and Audio/Visual Materials on Your Topic

MCC Library has a large collection of books and DVDs. The resources that are on the shelves in the Library have been chosen by faculty members and the reference librarians in order to support the curriculum here at MCC. You will find many resources in the collection that will be helpful for completing a research assignment.

To find materials housed in the MCC Library and at other CT State Colleges and Universities libraries, use MCC Search, our research discovery service. If MCC doesn't own the title you need, you can request it from another campus library and have it delivered to MCC. You need to be logged in with your NetID and password to request items. 


 Step 5.  Locate Articles on Your Topic

Finding Periodical Articles on Your Topic

You can also used general and specialized research databases to discover articles. The MCC Library subscribes to a number of databases. Periodicals are publications (magazines, newspapers, and journals) that are issued at regular intervals and provide up-to-date information and are used to supplement information found in books. Because articles are so timely, it is essential for students to use them when doing research. MCC subscribed to thousand of newspapers, magazines and journals, both online and in print.

Article Citations

Article citations identify the article and contain the following information: author, article title, periodical title, date of publication, volume number, issue number, and page numbers. The citation may also indicate special features of the article such as illustrations, diagrams, graphs or portraits.  Print the citation and keep it with your research materials. You will need the citations to prepare your bibliography or "works cited" page. Take a look at the following citation from the Business Research Database, ABI/INFORM:

Title:  Social media: creating richer relationships in the workplace

Source:  People & Strategy. 33.3 (Sept. 2010): p7. From ABI/INFORM.

Author: Rob Quish

Social media: creating richer relationships in the workplace is the title of the article. Rob Quish is the author. People & Strategy is the title of the periodical. 33.3 means this article is in volume 33, issue 3 of this periodical. September 2010 is the publication date, and p7 means that the article begins on page 7. Understanding the elements of a citation will enable you to use many different electronic databases.


A citation may contain an abstract. An abstract is a summary of the important parts of an article or text. Many articles that are listed in our databases contain abstracts. Reading the abstract will allow you to determine if the information is what you are seeking. If the full text (actual article) of the article is included with the abstract you can print it out for future reference. 

Identifying Keywords

Any word or phrase that describes a main concept in your topic can be considered a keyword. Unsure about what keywords to use in the library databases or catalog to research your topic? Write down your topic in a sentence. Focus on the words that describe your topic.

How do eating disorders correlate to academic performance in college?

Now come up with as many possible words that mean the same thing (synonyms) or are related to each of the words. 

Medical Keywords: eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, obesity, weight

Education Keywords: achievement, success

Age Keywords: college students, teenagers, young adults

Try different combinations of keywords in your searches. The results you get may also show you other words or phrases that are helpful.

Boolean Operators

  • Choose correct search terms. Start with a keyword search, find an article on your topic, click on the title and look for the given SUBJECT TERMS and enter them into the Advanced Search field to find more.
  • Narrow your search by using Boolean operators. What's that?

Example from California State University San Marcos


Use truncation (stemming of search words) to search more effectively.

child* = child, children, childhood

genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically

sun* = sun, sunshine, sunlight