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Research Skills: Getting Started

First Steps

First, review your assignment to be sure you understand the requirements such as subject/topic, purpose, length, amount of research needed, and if there are restrictions on the type of research to use (such as the number or type of resources you have to use).

Step 1: Choose the Topic

Even if your assignment gives you topic guidelines, you may need to still narrow it down to be more specific.

Tip 1:  Choose a topic that interests you or that you want to know more about. 

Tip 2: Choose a topic that has enough research available to meet the assignment requirements.

Tip 3: If you need topic ideas, look through your textbook, talk to your instructor, or do some preliminary research on subjects that interest you.

Step 2: Brainstorm and Search Terms

  • Brainstorm what you already know about your topic and what you want to know about your topic. 
  • Note down the who, what, when, where, why, how, and significance of your topic.
  • Next, create at least three questions you have about your topic. 
  • Then make note of nouns and pronouns used in those questions.  Hint: Those are the start to search terms or phrases for your information search. 


As an example, let’s say I want to write a paper about illiteracy in the digital age. I might have these questions that research could help me answer (possible search terms are highlighted):

Who is affected by illiteracy? (results: Children and adults, 757 million adults are illiterate)

My “who” question can become a search phrase itself, or I could also search for “illiteracy population/group.”

Are there different types of illiteracy? (results: up to 20 different types of illiteracy)

What are the solutions to illiteracy? (results: reading support in lower grades, keep kids in school, literacy training in the workplace)


Next Steps

Now that you know what you are looking for, follow these tips to get better search results. 

Step 3Search Databases and Websites

Use your search terms to search databases, websites, and other online materials. (Check out the library's research guides!) Each of these resources can give you hundreds of results or more.  Knowing which resource to use is almost as important as having good keywords and search terms.  Consider the currency of the information, should it be academic or general, and the depth of information needed. 

Step 4: Refine Your Results

When you begin your research, you might be overwhelmed with results, or you might not be getting the results you wanted or enough of the ones you did want.  Refining your results to make your search more specific should help. 

Search terms – add to or use new search terms you have noticed from the research you’ve gathered so far

Full Text – when searching in a database, choose “full text” to weed out the results that don’t have the source available in full text.

Scholarly/Peer Reviewed – When searching in databases, choose scholarly or peer-reviewed to limit your results to scholarly sources and ones that have gone through an active review process.  These sources use research and provide more information and analysis. They are the “elite athlete” of information sources.

Publication type – news sources/newspapers, magazines, journal articles, reports, encyclopedias. Each of these different types of publications will offer different levels of information on a topic. 

Publication date – You can weed out less relevant results by narrowing the date range for your results.

Step 5: Evaluate Your Sources

Use the criteria below to evaluate the quality and usefulness of the sources.

Currency- When was it published or posted? Has it been updated or revised? Is the information current or out of date for your topic?

Authority- Is it clear who the author/source/publisher/sponsor is? What are the author’s qualifications to write about this topic? (consider credentials and organizational affiliations) Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source? Is contact information given?

Accuracy – Is the information supported by evidence?  Has it been reviewed? Can you verify any of the information with another source? Does the language or tone seem unbiased? Are there grammar or spelling errors? Do links work?

Relevance- Does the information relate to your topic or answer your questions?

Purpose – is the purpose of the information clear? Is the information a fact or opinion? Is the information meant to be informative or persuasive? Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?

Final Steps

Follow these final steps to add the research you found to your paper.

Step 6: Add the Research to Your Paper

Three ways to add your research to your paper or project are to summarize, paraphrase, or quote material.

Summarize – Put the main ideas of a source or part of a source into your own words. A summary is useful for condensing larger sections of text. A summary should be attributed to the original source.

Paraphrase – The original source’s ideas are expressed in your own words. Paraphrasing is useful for combining a bit of information from more than one sentence in the source and it condenses information slightly.  Paraphrased material must be attributed to the original source.

Quote – Quotes are word for word identical to the source’s words and must be placed in quotation marks (quotation marks at the beginning and end of the source).  Quoted material must be attributed to the original source

Step 7: Cite Your Sources

Be honest and give credit where credit is due. Check the assignment or with your professor about which citation style to use. Cite your sources! Check the library’s page for citation style help guides.