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Research 101

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Announcement Megaphone IconFALL 2021  Please see our guide to our services while the majority of classes continue to be held online:  

We will do our best to update that site as quickly as possible whenever there are any changes to our services. 

Understanding your assignment

Reading your assignment carefully can make a huge difference. If you can't describe what your assignment is about to someone else, re-read the assignment sheet or talk with your instructor. 

Highlight or underline these key elements to understanding your assignment:

  • Task
    • Not all research tasks are the same. What is your professor asking you to do? Summarize basic facts from different sources? Present historical context for a person or event? Persuade your reader of an original thesis? Support an argument with evidence? Analyze opposing views?
    • If your task is not clear, ask your professor - understanding your task from the beginning will save you from wasting time or getting frustrated later.


  • Topic 
    • Did your professor assign a topic, or do they want you to choose your own?
    • If they want you to choose your own, what guidelines do they give you for what would be an appropriate topic? 
    • If your topic is too big, you may need to focus it - check out tips for choosing a good topic.


  • Type(s) of sources 
    • Did your professor say what kinds of sources they want you to use?
    • Look here to find out about different kinds of sources that are appropriate for different needs. 
  • Due date(s) 
    • What are the deadlines? Some professors might have separate deadlines for telling them your topic, providing a few initial sources, creating an outline, writing a first draft, and turning in a final draft. Others just have a final deadline. Make sure you know what your deadlines are.  
    • Please remember that research takes time! Give yourself plenty of time so that you won't be stressed at the last minute. 
  • Style and formatting 
    • Did your professor specify format issues like font size, spacing, and citation style? Our section on citing and using sources can help with this.

Video: Focusing your research

More tips

Choose a topic you find interesting and a question about it that you don't already have the answer to. Don't make the rookie mistake of dreaming up what you'll write first, then looking for someone who agrees with you! 

Research is about asking questions, learning new things, making sense of varied and sometimes contradictory information, and asking new questions. 

nderstanding these steps in the reseach process can help you take charge of your research:

  •  Consider your topic's scope : how broad or narrow is it? If it's too broad, you may find lots of sources but they may not work together well, because there are so many sub-topics. If your topic is too narrow, it may be hard to find information at all.  
  • Focus your topic and develop a research question by brainstorming (actually write it out!):
    • What do you already know about the topic?
    • What more do you want to find out? 

For more on focusing your topic and developing a research question, see the video above.  

  • Develop keywords to do more searches, and do some background research - especially when a topic is new to you. Reference articles, news publications, and book introductions can help you learn more about your topic. See the big picture and  what sub-topics exist to refine your focus.
  • As you read each source, your understanding of the topic and questions about it will change - this is normal! 
  • Research is a dynamic process. Be prepared to modify or refine your topic. This is usually the sign of thoughtful and well-done research.
  • You can always contact your professor (take advantage of their office hours!) and Hostos librarians for more help in developing your topic and research question. 

One Search for articles and books

Databases : what and where are they?

Databases: basic searches

Video: Creating effective keywords

Too MANY Results?

Too FEW Results?

  • Tighten your focus - your subject might be too broad (for tips on how to do this, see this short video).
  • Try keywords that are more specific
  • Try more keywords   A search for baseball will have more results than a search for baseball Yankees Jeter. Adding keywords will make your search more specific.
  • Add filters (such as date and format).      


  • Broaden your focus, if your topic is already very specific.
  • Try keywords that are more general
  • Try synonyms to your first keywords
  • Try fewer keywords.  A search for diabetes women Dominican elderly insulin therapy will have fewer results than a search for diabetes. Removing search terms will make your search more general.
  • Remove filters (such as date and format)
  • Try searching in a database that specializes in a certain subject. You can look in discipline-specific databases (click on the "subjects" drop-down menu)