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Research Strategies: Background research

Background research

What's Happening When You Do Background Research?

When you do background research, you're exploring your general area of interest so that you can form a more focused topic. You will be making an entry into an ongoing conversation, and you have the opportunity to ask new questions and create new knowledge.

Why is this important?

Have you ever done a project that just never seemed to come together?

"I had a general idea but not a specific focus. As I was writing, I didn't know what my focus was. When I was finished, I didn't know what my focus was. My teacher says she doesn't know what my focus was. I don't think I ever acquired a focus. It was an impossible paper to write. I would just sit there and say, "I'm stuck." If I learned anything from that paper it is, you have to have a focus. You have to have something to center on. You can't just have a topic. You should have an idea when you start. I had a topic but I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. I figured that when I did my research it would focus in. But I didn't let it. I kept saying, 'this is interesting and this is interesting and I'll just smush it all together.' It didn't work out." -(Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century)

Can you relate?

Doing background research to explore your initial topic can help you to find create a focused research question. Another benefit to background searching - it's very hard to write about something if you don't know anything about it! At this point, collecting ideas to help you construct your focused topic will be very helpful. Not every idea you encounter will find its way into your final project, so don't worry about collecting very, very detailed information just yet. Wait until your project has found a focus.

While you're doing you're background research, don't be surprised if your topic changes in unexpected ways - you're discovering more about your topic, and you're making choices based on on the new information you find. If your topic changes, that's OK!


A tool to help you throughout your project: the research log! Logging your research, and making a general record of the sources you find will be very useful for you at this point.

What Interests You?

Identifying what interests you in the context of your assignment can help you get started on your research project.

Some questions to consider:

Why is your project interesting/important to you? To your community? To the world?

What about your project sparks your curiosity and creativity?

Some ideas from the Reference Librarians at Gustavus Adolphus

  • Make a list of possible issues to research. Use class discussions, texts, personal interests, conversations with friends, and discussions with your teacher for ideas. Start writing them down - you'd be surprised how much faster they come once you start writing.
  • Map out the topic by finding out what others have had to say about it. This is not the time for in-depth reading, but rather for a quick scan. Many students start with a Google search, but you can also browse the shelves where books on the topic are kept and see what controversies or issues have been receiving attention. Search a database for articles on your topic area and sort out the various approaches writers have taken. Look for overviews and surveys of the topic that put the various schools of thought or approaches in context. You may start out knowing virtually nothing about your topic, but after scanning what's out there you should have several ideas worth following up.
  • Invent questions. Do two things you come across seem to offer interesting contrasts? Does one thing seem intriguingly connected to something else? Is there something about the topic that surprises you? Do you encounter anything that makes you wonder why? Do you run into something that makes you think, "no way! That can't be right." Chances are you've just uncovered a good research focus.
  • Draft a proposal for research. Sometimes a teacher will ask you for a formal written proposal. Even if it isn’t required, it can be a useful exercise. Write down what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it's important. You may well change your topic entirely by the time its finished, but writing down where you plan to take your research at this stage can help you clarify your thoughts and plan your next steps.

-Source: The Reference Librarians at Gustavus Adolphus College

What am I looking for?

It can be very helpful to write out your thoughts as you work through the answers to these questions.

Think about what you need to know:

  • What do you already know about your topic?
  • What don't you know about your topic? What do you feel like you might need to know? 
  • What are the fundamental facts and background on your topic? What do you need to know to write knowledgeably about your topic?
  • What are the different viewpoints on your topic? You should expect to encounter diverse views on a topic.

And of course...

  • What is your assignment asking of you? 

When you are doing your research, you are not looking for one perfect source with one right answer. You're collecting and thinking critically about ideas to form a focus for your own research.

If you're having trouble answering these questions, you might find the six journalist's questions helpful in focusing your thinking:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

Don't feel like you need to get bogged down in the minutiae of every source at this point!

At this point in your research, you are browsing for ideas and information to help you fill in the gaps. You're looking to develop a more focused topic. When you focus your topic you'll be able to really engage with the sources that will help you with your sources.

KWHL Chart

Not quite sure how to get started? The KWHL Tool will help you visualize your thinking, and start organizing the information you find. It will help you sort out

  • What you already know
  • What you don’t yet know about your topic
  • Where you’re looking (how will you find it)
  • What you’ve learned

All of which will help you focus your project! (and maybe save a little time & stress, too!)

Take Notes while You're Searching!

As you're doing your research, take some brief notes about the sources you've found. Noting interesting ideas and items will help you remember what you've read as you put your ideas together to form a research question. It will also help you to make note of parts of your sources that you want to quote later (and find it easily while you're putting your research project together!)

Example of Brainstorming 1: Global Warming

Here's an example of a mindmap. The student used colors to organize her ideas: red is the idea she started with, green are broader concepts, black are subtopics.  She put a red star on the topic she decided to focus on.

example of brainstorming for global warming

Example of Brainstorming

This shows a more formal example of brainstorming to go from a broad topic (global warming) to more narrower topics (like environment and political), to even more narrow topics (like rising sea levels and roles of government).

Topic Narrower Topic Even Narrower
Global Warming Environment - rising sea levels
- destruction of rain forests
- air pollution
  Political - Kyoto Protocol
- roles of government
  Human Element - impact on world health
- reducing use of fossil fuel
  Economic - agriculture
- role of corporations
  Geographical - developing countries
- Antarctic region

Apps for Brainstorming