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

A step-by-step in-depth start to finish guide through the research process.

How to Choose a Topic

Step 1 in the research process is to select your topic. It's possible your instructor has already assigned a topic, or it's also possible that you get to choose a topic on your own. 

Assignment icon


Your Assignment is Your Starting Point


  • Do you need to write an 1-2 page essay or a 5-7 page research paper?
  • Give a  2-3 minutes speech, a a 6-7 minute speech?
  • Do you need to present a short presentation or a long one? 
  • Do you need to demo how to prepare a healthy snack or a healthy meal?
  • Does your assignment require you to use specific sources - . books? news articles? scholarly articles? Videos?

The scope and nature of your assignment will help you make a decision about what topic to choose. 

  • For  2-3 minute speech or presentation may need information AND  images or other visuals
  • For 1-2 page essay you may need background and scholarly information that requires thought and evaluation
  • Your target audience will guide your decision making
    • instructor
    • classmates
    • someone else

Use the tools In this guide to help you get started!

Exploring Topics

The act of exploring your topic will help you refine and strengthen your argument. Watch this short video to find out what it means to "explore a topic."

By NCSU Libraries

This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

Find Topic Ideas Using the Library's Databases

library databases


Link to the library databases listed below to browse for ideas!

Find Topic Ideas Using Class Notes and Materials

Note-taking icon   Your class notes or other materials may provide good ideas for a research topic. 

Flip back through your notes, handouts, slides, or textbook to see if anything sparks your interest. Is there any issue, study, or reference that you'd like to investigate more fully? Is there an important issue that would be interesting to learn more about?

Find Topic Ideas Using Websites

Websites iconThere are many websites that can help spark a good idea or research topic!

Western Technical College
Western Technical College Learning Commons
Student Success Center, Room 201
400 7th Street North
La Crosse, WI 54601
State Relay: 711
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Learn more about Western and the Learning Commons.
The Learning Commons provides library and academic support services on campus and online. The Learning Commons will set you up for success!

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