: What we do when we have a question or problem that we want to resolve. Remember, this is a process, not a step-by-step procedure.
1. Choose a topic
- Select a general subject area (Rivers of China, or Child Labor, for example)
- Read about your topic in general and specific reference works for background information. Pick out words and phrases that will be useful keywords during your research later on.
- General reference works: Your textbook and encyclopedias (Britannica Online, World Book Encyclopedia in print).
- Subject specific reference works: Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (6 volume set) is one example. We have many, many more.
- Now, are you still interested in this topic? Will you be able to spend several weeks with this topic? Will you be able to find enough information on your topic at your reading level? If not, choose another topic. Circle back. Presearch again.
3. Focus the topic
- State your topic as a question that you intend to answer in your project. The research topic will look different depending on your grade level.
For example, if researching rivers in China
- LS: “What is the largest river in China and where is it located?”
- 5/6: “How have the lives of the people who live near the Yangtze River been affected by that waterway? ”
- 7/8: “Although the construction of the Three Gorges Dam displaced many people from their homes, how has it benefited the people of China?
- US: “What are the long-term implications of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam for the political stability of China?”
- At this stage it is helpful to:
- Write down what you already know.
- Write down what you want to learn.
- Circle back --revisit your original ideas. Are they too broad? Are they too narrow? For example, if researching child labor: Maybe, I should focus on children working in one industry -- coal mining or millwork -- instead of all working children. Ask a teacher or librarian if you are not sure if your topic is too broad or too narrow.
4. Find Sources
- This is the biggee. Once you learn a strategy for finding what you need, it’s all downhill. What kinds of sources will you need? Using the keywords that you developed in the Presearch step, start with broad resources and work toward more specific resources. Most of the sources you use will be considered “secondary sources,” which offer an analysis, explanation, or restatement of primary sources. A secondary source is usually written after the events it describes. Good places to look for secondary sources are:
- Books – primary sources and secondary sources.
- SFS Library Catalog
- Public Library Catalogs
- Articles – We keep back issues of print magazines for several years.
But also, magazine and newspaper articles, as well as other texts can be found on our online databases on the library web pages:
- Facts on file Reference Suite
- New York Times Historical Database
- History Study Center
- Daily Life Through History
- Internet sites –
Your libraries provide a rich array of books and online databases that should satisfy most of your research needs. However, on occasion, it is necessary to turn to the internet for additional information. When would this be appropriate?
- To find a primary source not found in the library.
- To find the web site of a noted expert on your topic.
- To find the web site of an organization devoted to your topic. For example, NASA, United Nations, CIA World Factbook, Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.
- To find very current information on a particular topic (i.e., global warming, current foreign policy, alternative energy resources).
You need to verify whether your teacher will allow you to use general web sites (rather than specific sites like those mentioned above). If so, be prepared to evaluate the information you find to prove its validity. Right now, we recommend Vivisimo.com over Google for academic research. It organizes your returns for you into separate folders.
Primary Sources - Some teachers may require primary sources, which are records of events as they are first described. Often the books you choose may contain some primary source material, so remember to check!
Other places to look for primary sources include:
- Annals of American History (in print in the MS, online on US Library page)
- History Study Center
- Library of Congress American Memory Project
- Diaries, speeches, letters, memoirs, autobiographies, original works of art, photographs, political cartoons, and more.
So how do you find these sources and the good information within these sources?
- Use the keywords from your Presearch to enter as search terms in online library catalogs, online databases, and in the index of books that you’ve found.
- Browse the books to the left and right of the book you find on the library shelf. They should all be related to your topic. Check their indexes to see if they have useful information for your project.
- Use the bibliographies and footnotes found at the end of chapters and articles that you’ve already found. Find these additional sources here at Sidwell Friends or in your public library.
- When looking online, experiment with combining keywords to narrow and better define your search. Remember to enclose two or three-word phrases in quotation marks when using online databases and search engines. For example: “Yangtze River” AND culture, or “child labor” AND “coal mines.”
- Evaluate your sources as you go along. Library books and library online databases have been evaluated for you. They are accurate and will be useful to somebody, but be sure they are useful to you. You must evaluate any internet sources before using them. It would be a shame if you based your entire project on a site that was not accurate. The MS library has forms for web site evaluation.
Before taking your first note or highlighting your first sentence, record your sources. Keep a working bibliography as you go along. You can always disregard a title that you end up not using. We recommend using note cards, and also NoodleBib, which can be accessed through the MS Library page in the gray box. Select the link “Citing Sources.”
6. Outline and take notes
- Take notes in whatever way your teacher requires. Once you begin taking notes, and are pondering your ideas, you will begin to have more questions that are important to investigate. Let these questions guide you. Circle back to your controlling idea or thesis to see if answers to these questions will deepen your understanding of your topic or throw you off track.
- Organize your notes by grouping similar subtopics together. This will help you design an outline. This first outline will most likely have holes in it or flaws of some sort. This is normal and okay! Circle back. Do more research. See where you are missing information. Take more notes.
Revise your outline by answering these questions:
- How should I order things? What order makes the most sense?
- Have I used all of the required sources?
- Do I have a need for primary sources? Did I remember to use some?
7. Write the paper or create the project
8. Edit/rewrite: edit, proofread, revise, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.