Researching 101: A Student’s Guide to Tackling Unfamiliar Topics

So you’ve been assigned an essay or project on a topic you know little about. Don’t panic — you’ve got this! As university students, we’ll all encounter this at some point. As many have before, you’ll find your way somehow.

First things first: it’s time to reframe the task into a grand adventure. It’ll reduce the stress.

Helpful Tips for Getting Started

Getting started will seem daunting. Where and how should you begin?

First, don’t panic! Every researcher starts from scratch at some point. The key is to do something to fire the engine. Anything.

Do some light pre-research to get the lay of the land. Search online for your topic, using related keywords to find overviews, examples, and definitions. See what interests and sparks your curiosity.

Once you have a general sense of the topic’s scope, start generating questions about specific areas you want to explore further. You can narrow the list later.

Just like this, you’ve already begun!

Developing a Research Plan: Ask the Right Questions

First, come up with some questions about your topic to help guide your search.

  • What do I already know?
  • What do I need to find out?
  • Are there any unanswered questions?

Next, search for the information! Make ample use of the databases your university is subscribed to, and the libraries. Explore subject expert reviews, government data or statistics, documentaries, podcasts, newspapers, and more — depending on what’s suitable for your major/assignment. Consider all sides and viewpoints, not just the dominant narratives. The more sources, the better.

Once you start gathering information, organize everything in one place. Create files or folders, an online document, or put pen to paper. Keep track of authors, dates published and page numbers as you go: you don’t want to panic when you need to do up your citations! Summarize, paraphrase or directly quote the most important details.

Finally, review and evaluate your findings. Determine if you need more data or if there are any gaps. Verify facts by cross-checking sources. Then start outlining and drafting, using your notes and summaries. Add your own ideas and analysis to build a cohesive paper.

Finding Reliable and Relevant Sources

When using sources from databases (or just about anywhere else), check the credentials and possible biases of the authors or organizations behind the information. Look for authors with advanced degrees in relevant fields from accredited institutions. If relevant to your field of study, consider the overall reputation and possible political leanings of organizations that publish or sponsor research. Would this influence the report’s findings?

Make sure the information is up-to-date and relevant. Wherever possible, use research published within the last 3-5 years.

Organizing Your Findings and Next Steps

Once you’ve gathered all your research, it’s time to organize.

Review and sort

Go through all the information you’ve collected and sort it into main ideas and supporting evidence. Look for connections between sources and group related ideas together.

Develop an outline

Transform your sorted research into a rough outline. Even if it seems weak or incomplete, it serves as a roadmap for your work and helps identify any gaps that need addressing.

Create a schedule

This is more important than you think! You should set target dates for finishing your outline, first draft, revisions, and final draft: oftentimes, procrastination prevents you from producing an A+ assignment or project. Breaking down the work into manageable chunks will make the task seem less overwhelming. Leave buffer time for unexpected challenges like difficulty finding sources, or new ideas you want to explore further.

Start writing!

Dive into your first draft using your outline as a guide. Don’t worry about perfection at this point, just get your ideas down. You can reorganize, revise the wording, and polish your prose once a solid skeleton is out.

If at any time you feel stuck or frustrated, take a short break to rest your mind. It’s also good to always keep your thesis statement (or theme) within view, so that you are less likely to go off tangent.

If you can, seek feedback from your peers or instructors during to ensure you are on the right path!


Learning how to research effectively is a lifelong skill that extends beyond academia.

So there you have it, a few tips to get you started on researching that unfamiliar topic that seemed too overwhelming to even begin!


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