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Library Research Skills for College Students: Step-by-Step

A start-to-finish guide through the research process.

Start Your Research Journey Here

why do people research  (curiosity, need-to-know, assignment) graphic


This guide will help you work your way through the  research process.  Just follow the simple steps below (in order). Need help? Email Linda or use the Ask a Librarian form to help you work through the final phases of the research process.

The Research Process: Six Simple Steps

Choosing a topic icon  Step 1: Choose your topic

  • Choose a topic that you enjoy or are interested in or curious about
    • Personal interest -  arts/crafts, sports, cars, cooking, gardening, genealogy, etc,
    • Career interest -  related to your program at Western or future job goal
    • The world around you - current events, news, social issues, politics, etc.

Magnifying glass icon find information   Step 2: Find information about your topic

  • Head for the library databases first. What are databases?
    • Online spaces where you can find electronic versions of newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, ebooks, data, statistics, business reports, and streaming video
    • College and public libraries subscribe to databases
    • Wide range of subject areas. 
    • Use email or share tools to send an article to yourself
    • Use citation tools to copy/paste your citation at the end of a paper
      • Sometimes a database citation will mess up the capitalization
      • Be sure to make the corrections before submitting your assignment
      • Also double-check that the italics in the source title and database name pasted. Fix it if not.
    • Available 24/7. Login with a student ID or library card from a public library
    • Link to Western Library's complete A-Z Databases list below.
    • Link to the LibGuides below to learn more about working with library databases.

funnel icon filter information sources    Step 3: Evaluate and filter your sources

  •  Different sources of information have different purposes. What kind of information do you need?
    • Straight data and facts?
    • Personal perspectives or opinions?
    •  Academic and scholarly?
    • Newspapers, magazines, or encyclopedia articles? 
  • Choose the best sources for what you are trying to communicate in your assignment.
    •  A good source backs up its arguments and ideas with solid data, and evidence that can be confirmed. and presented in a neutral tone.
    • A bad source generally takes a more emotional tone, and may exaggerate, mislead, or provide completely wrong data and information to "prove" their point.

puzzle pieces icon notice patterns of information  Step 4: Notice patterns and overlap in the information

  • Take notes as you skim and scan the research material 
    • Jot down the main facts, ideas, and concepts related to your topic
    • Link to the LibGuide (Notes: Methods and Resources for Taking Notes) below to learn more about taking notes
  • Notice the patterns in your research material
    • Are the same ideas, themes, and topics repeated in different sources?
      • These are the most important pieces of your topic,
      • They represent the main points, secondary points, and boundaries of the subject
      • They help you identify the major components of your topic
      • They help you identify most common thoughts and beliefs.

NOTE: If you see something mentioned only once or that don’t fit the common understanding of your topic, it's probably not worth including. 

Pro Con icon   Step 5: Look at different perspectives on your topic

  • At this point you've probably formed your own thoughts about your topic and you have the sources to support it.
  • Next, look for sources that show another perspective.
    • This is a hugely important step!
      • Knowing and understanding other perspectives
        • Provides the complete picture of the issue.
        • Avoids confirmation bias and demonstrates objectivity about the issue
        • Ensures you understand your perspective is not the only one. Confirmation bias
        • Shows the validity of your own beliefs
        • Shows you understand why others may have different ideas

puzzle icon putting pieces together  Step 6: Put all the pieces together

  • Apply your research to your paper, speech, or project
  • Be confident about your new area of knowledge.
    • Explain all aspects of the topic or issue  
      • The big picture
      • Details and small and nuanced points.
      • Show that for you "Points X, Y, and Z make sense because… "
      • Show that others consider perspectives "A, B, and C because…” 

NOTE: If you're not 100% convinced about points X, Y, and Z and perspectives A, B, and C, retrace your steps,

  • Go back and review the steps in the research process to fill in the gaps

Steps icon

Steps 1, 2 & 3 of the Research Process are covered more in-depth in other pages in the guide. Link to them on the left. Connect with the Learning Commons Writing Center for help with Steps 4 & 5.

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