Begin Your Research

Read the assignment. In particular, look for task words like those listed below. These are action words used to explain what the assignment requires.

  • What topic(s) do you need to cover?
  • Does the assignment have a minimum word count?
  • Is there a specific citation style that should be used (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago)?
  • Is there a minimum number of sources that need to be used, and are there specific types of sources required (peer reviewed articles, primary sources, books, news articles)?

Ask the professor about aspects of the assignment that are not clear to you.

Account for: Explain, clarify, give reasons for. Important: This is different from 'Give an account of' which asks you to describe something in detail.

Analyze: Break an issue down into its key components, discuss them, and show how they are related to each other.

Assess: Consider the value or importance of something. Pay attention to positive, negative and/or disputable aspects.

Argue: Present a case based on evidence for and/or against a given point of view.

Comment on: This is more than simply describing or summarizing a topic. It requires an analysis or assessment as well.

Compare: Identify the characteristics or qualities of two or more things and describe their commonalities and differences.

Contrast: Similar to comparing, but with an emphasis on the differences between two or more things.

Criticize: Personally judge the value or truth of something. Indicate the criteria used to base your judgment and cite specific instances of how the criteria applies in this case.

Define: Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something. If necessary, provide detail as to how it can be distinguished from similar things.

Describe: Spell out the main aspects of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things occurred.

Discuss: Investigate or examine a topic through an argument. Examine key points and possible interpretations, providing reasons for and against them. Draw a conclusion.

Evaluate: Appraise the worth/quality of something in light of its apparent truth; include your personal opinion. Similar to 'assess'.

Enumerate: List relevant items, possibly in continuous prose rather than note form, and 'describe' them (see above) if necessary.

Examine: Provide an in-depth analysis of a topic and investigate related implications.

Explain: Examine how something works or how it came to be the way it is. This may include a need to 'describe' and 'analyze' (see above).

To what extent...?: Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, similar in manner to 'assess' and 'criticize' (see above), but arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.

How far: Similar to 'to what extent...?' (see above)

Identify: Pick out the key features of something, making clear the criteria you use if necessary.

Illustrate: Similar to 'explain' (see above), but includes the use of specific examples, statistics, maps, graphs, sketches, etc.

Interpret: Clarify something or 'explain' (see above), indicating how something relates to a different thing or perspective.

Justify: Express reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular interpretation or conclusion. May include the need to 'argue' (see above) or provide evidence.

Outline: Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a structure or framework to show how they are interrelated.

Prove: Demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or a logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to a conclusion.

Reconcile: Show how two seemingly opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions are similar in important respects. Involves the need to 'analyze' and 'justify' (see above).

Relate: Either 'explain' (see above) how something happened or are connected in a cause-and-effect sense. May imply 'compare' and 'contrast' (see above).

Review: Survey a topic, with an emphasis on 'assess' rather than 'describe' (see above).

State: Express the main points of an idea or topic in the manner of 'describe' or 'enumerate' (see above).

Summarize: 'State' (see above) the main features of an argument in an efficient and concise manner.

Trace: Identify the connection between one thing and another either in a developmental sense over a period of time, or in a cause-and-effect sense. May imply both 'describe' and 'explain' (see above).

If You Are to Select a Topic

  • It should meet all the requirements of the assignment.
  • It should be broad enough to give you several research options.
  • It should be focused enough so as to not be overwhelming.

Begin Gathering Information

If you are unfamiliar with a topic, learn more about the fundamental aspects of the topic so you can decide how it can be narrowed down. Examples of sources that can provide this type of background information include:

Keywords are words that describe the topic. When using databases to find resources keywords can be used to find search results relevant to your topic. Some databases also use Subject headings so that all of the articles on a particular topic all have the same heading assigned to them.

Places to Find Keywords and Subject Headings

  • The Library of Congress list of Subject Headings shows terms used by the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and libraries all over the United States for topics.
  • Medical Subject Headings are the Subject Headings used by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland for topics included in the PubMed database and other medical databases.
  • Individual Database subject terms can be found in many research databases. They are often listed in a "Thesaurus" in the database.