4.5 Quick Guide for an Undergraduate Research Assignment

Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt

Defining and understanding your goals or purpose for research is an important step. Your writing has a purpose; therefore your research has a purpose. Instead of looking at research as a boring, difficult task, see it as an opportunity to learn. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, look to your topic and know that you have a mission. With that in mind, follow these steps if you do feel lost and overwhelmed by a research task (and, of course, contact a librarian!):

First, look at your assignment to note any requirements set by your instructor. In addition to the content, format, and genre of your paper, look for advice on how many sources, what kinds of sources, and what type of citations are required. These and other expectations will impact your research and writing.

Next, underline these expectations and guidelines or make a list of these requirements and criteria, and refer to your notes and assignment often; they’ll help you as you work. Keep your assignment instructions handy. Then, checking the assignment criteria again before submitting your final paper will ensure that you haven’t missed anything important. Most importantly, make sure you understand the purpose of the assignment, as that will direct your research and writing.

Developing your topic is usually the next step. You may have been given topics to choose from or the freedom to create your own. Either way, your topic needs to be arguable and be the right size to fit your assignment. If you are expected to hand in a ten page paper, you don’t want to have done enough research to write a book. Work smart, not harder.

When you have a specific and arguable topic, turn it into a research question. Your research question is your starting point. It should include your topic, what you want to learn about that topic, and some boundaries to keep your research focused. For example, if your topic is information science, then you can narrow down that research area by formulating questions: What is information science?; What makes it a science?; Why is library funding cut when we all need libraries?; How did libraries originate?; and so on.

Okay, you have your research question, now what? Start by answering it yourself in a 15 minute writing spree. Seriously, time yourself and just write and don’t worry about making mistakes. This “zero-drafting” or starting from zero (a common technique) gives you a baseline to start from and provides insight about your own perspectives on your topic. That said, you need to be prepared to shift gears or change your mind if your future work shows that your perspective on a topic is not supported by research. For example, your topic may be about poverty and homelessness. You may think that homeless folks don’t have jobs. But then you discover by reading peer-reviewed studies and journalistic interviews that up to a quarter of homeless folks have jobs and struggle to keep those jobs[1]—many for reasons directly related to the precariousness of their living situations. As a result of finding this information from a variety of sources, you change what you originally thought. This is the value of research: not to necessarily reinforce your point of view but verify, challenge, or change your point of view.

4.5.1 Let’s Talk about Sources

There’s a whole world of sources that may be useful to your writing. Usually a scholarly paper relies mostly on scholarly sources, but there may be a reason to use other kinds of sources. Different sources contain different types of information, and some can be found using different tools than those typically used to find scholarly sources. (We break down levels of sources in section 4.6 Citational Practice: Writing from Sources.)

In the pre-research, or investigation phase of your work, you likely start with broad internet searches and reference works like encyclopedias or dictionaries. Scholarly articles and books provide specific evidence and conclusions that support your hypothesis and thesis. Popular news sources can show the currency of your topic or how your topic is discussed more generally and publicly. Corporate websites, museum or university and college websites, and government publications can complete your evidence with statistics, primary sources, and more.

Understanding the categories of scholarly, popular, and news sources can help you consider your evidence, plan a search, and assess and use the sources you find.

Table 4.1 Types of Sources

Scholarly Sources Written by and for scholars or experts.
Reviewed by scholars if peer reviewed.
Based in a specific discipline, for a specific community of scholars. Uses conventions of scholarly writing in that discipline: citation, format, sections, etc. Identifies all sources via appropriate citations. May take 1 to 5 years to reach publication. Scholarly journals are published monthly or less frequently.
Popular Sources May be written by journalists or experts, for everyone.
Reviewed by editors, possibly specialist editors.
Written for a general and broad audience, often with a special interest. Uses conventions of that specific magazine and format (print or online). May reference sources in text, usually no citations. Published monthly or more frequently; may include background information.
News Sources Written by journalists for a wide range of people.
Reviewed by generalist editors.
Written for a general and broad audience. Uses conventions of journalism: often short articles, written for ease and speed of reading. May reflect political bias of the source publication. Brief mentions of sources in text; sources may or may not be experts; frequently incorporate the opinions of laypeople or community members; commonly makes use of interviews (rather than published research) Published daily or more frequently; little perspective over time or background information. Focus is on the moment, what’s happened today, currency is key.

Note that any of these types of sources can exist in a variety of formats, and that the term “scholarly” references a spectrum, not an absolute. How you assess the scholarly-ness of a source depends on many things, including how you intend to use it. Each source needs to be read critically, and each can be useful in your writing. Consider your sources carefully, and be prepared to defend their use if challenged—or to use different sources if what you found at first isn’t working well.

Every kind of source, even scholarly sources, needs to be assessed critically, regardless of type or format. Consider the source itself (what it says, how it says it), its context (the journal it’s found in, the citations it’s using), and how you can use it to further your argument. We know all of this information can be a little overwhelming, but as an undergraduate student, you are supported and can seek help.

Research and writing are complex, recursive activities. Remember that the process may take time, perhaps a little more time than you anticipate! One reason you should allow for this additional time is the need to read and write together. You may start by locating and reading sources that help you select and narrow your topic. As you narrow your topic, you might need to go back and look for additional sources. Additional sources may help you flesh out your understanding of your topic and build the structure of your paper. As you begin drafting, you may find your content shifts and new ideas emerge. As you work through these reading and writing processes, you may have questions. Who might you go to for support as you move through your research and writing journey?

Remember, you can check in with your course instructor and Teaching Assistant about an assignment and contact university or college librarians for help with identifying key search terms, finding and selecting sources, and citing sources. You can also visit your writing centre for assistance with getting started, narrowing your topic, and drawing from outside sources. Speaking of sources, what exactly does it mean to use sources?

  1. Emma Woolley, “How Many People Experiencing Homelessness Are Employed?,” Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub (blog), York University, July 15, 2016, homelesshub.ca/blog/how-many-people-experiencing-homelessness-are-employed.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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