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The Undergraduate Research Process

1. Scholarly Mindset

2. Identify and Develop Topic

1. Scholarly Mindset

In her work, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming of a Dark Age, Maggie Jackson reminds us that our technology, which is not inherently bad, has diminished our capacity to keep our attention focused. When I met her, we spoke about how our loyalties are divided and how notifications can diminish our capacity to focus, not only on our tasks, but also our relationships. Think about it: Have you ever been in class or out to dinner when a classmate or friend spent more time looking at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or a text than engaging with the activity or conversation at hand? How, then, do we create an environment of intentionality?

  1. Block off time to study in a calendar or a bullet journal. Click here for bullet journaling and other note-taking tips.
  2. Pick a quiet place where you can study. Libraries are perfect places because there are many quiet areas. At home, there are a multitude of distractions: laundry, video games, or binge watching your favorite Netflix show.
  3. Turn off all notifications to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail, and texts. Tell your loved one where you are studying so that, in case of an emergency, they can get a hold of you.

By considering these steps, you are eliminating interruptions. Interruptions cost you time. Think back to a time when you were reading or writing an assignment, and you were interrupted by a notification from your device or by a friend who wants to engage in a conversation. Did you have to take valuable time to remember what you were reading or writing? We all have at some point. The idea here is not to become antisocial, but to limit your distractions, as they cost you your most valuable commodity: time.


Curiosity is one of the most critical traits for a scholar to have. We are naturally not curious about every subject matter. How can you become curious about a subject matter in which you have no interest?  

  • Find your “in”: how do your interests relate to the topic?
  • Find appreciation for the topic: Why is the topic important? How does it relate to our society or our experience?
  • Find a friend or relative with an interest in the topic and figure out why they are enthusiastic about it.

Close reading and note-taking skills are critical to the research process. Not only are these skills important in your academic life, but they are important in your professional life too.

  1. Read with a pencil or pen in your hand, and annotate everything you read. You can't take extensive notes in the margins, but you will be able to create annotations that help summarize, make connections between ideas, and raise questions about what you are reading.
  2. Keep a reading journal using 3x5 cards, a legal notepad, MSWord, OneNote, or a note-taking app like Evernote. Remember, all students have access to Office 365, with OneNote and MSWord. With this product, you can share your notes with each other. Education is communal but make sure that all members contribute equally.

a. Summarize and paraphrase ideas into your own words.

b. Write out observations and assumptions: You can verify these later when doing research.

c. Be curious. Write out questions that you seek to answer.

To retain information, you need to store it in a place you can access later on and put them in your own words. 

The first step in honing your new study skills is to take better notes. In this video Thomas will tell you everything you need to know to come to class prepared and find a note-taking system that will help you retain and review like a champ.


2. Identify and Develop Topic

Being a researcher means that sometimes you have to be nimble. In the next two steps, you may find yourself going back and forth: doing background research while you are developing your topic.

In a freshman course, the topics are often chosen for you; in many cases, there’s wiggle room for you to operate within a predetermined topic, like the content of your course. It’s best to find out from your professor to what extent you can work within a topic. When instructors give you topics to research, they will either give you a prompt, ask a question, or give you a list of topics from which you can make a choice. In all cases, you will need to go on a journey of discovery and search for information that will help you answer the question.

In some cases, your instructor may give you “free reign” within the framework of a course to do your own research. This can be an overwhelming feeling; after all, our world is complex and there’s so much out there for us to learn. Again, talk with your instructor or seek out a reference librarian. You may have to create your own topic and question for research.

What’s critical in each scenario is that you possess curiosity to learn more about the ideas in the course, how the ideas you are learning apply to your major, and finally, what the larger scholarly community has to say about your topic and question.


Before you have this conversation with your professor, it's best to go to them with an idea first. Here are some strategies you can use to begin thinking about your topic.

  1. Use your textbook to look for broad ideas or themes.
  2. Converse with classmates in the course.
  3. Read the newspaper and professional magazines for ideas that are interesting, current, intellectual, inclusive, and interdisciplinary.
  4. Look for controversial issues in news media; this doesn’t mean you need to become polemic yourself. You will be looking for evidence to help you bring levity to an issue or topic.
  5. Go to the PPSC Learning Commons or Library, and talk with a reference librarian, who can also facilitate a conversation about what, within the field of study, interests you to explore and learn more about a topic. You can also ask questions to PPSC librarians online here!
  6. Always remember that you can consult with your instructor.
  7. This drives a key point: a willingness to have conversations about the course material and topics will help you ultimately decide upon a topic.

- The economic causes of the Civil War

- The benefits and hindrances of mining He3 on the Moon

Once you have a topic, run it by your professor or the reference librarian; they will help you refine it!

Using a subject encyclopedia and/or reference can help you to identify topics. You will find them in the reference section; universities often have large reference sections. Libraries in recent years have shifted their resources to obtaining more online references. These are also great sources. At PPSC, we have CREDO (in Latin, this literally translates to "I believe"). CREDO is a database that hosts online references; these references possess common knowledge or the consensus of a given field. Therefore, the information tends to be more factual.

References and subject encyclopedias can teach you the common knowledge of a topic or field of study, giving you a stronger foundation and allowing you to flush out your topic, thus empowering you to ask a stronger question.


What makes a good research topic? 

The perfect topic doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Getting started is one of the hardest parts. In this video you will learn: What makes a good research topic, how to conduct background research and how to develop a specific and relevant research topic.

3. Find Background Information

4. Research Question Hypotheses

3. Find Background Information

Curiosity did not kill the cat; you have a topic. Learn as much about that topic as possible. You don't want to get mired in jargon language, but every field of study has it. Your goal is to not only learn the definition of the jargon word, but be able to explain and expand upon the ideas in general terms. This shows understanding.

Why are you doing this? This is a critical and often overlooked step, partly because some professors have a stigma of using references and partly because students focus on books and articles to obtain their information.

Subject encyclopedias (references) and books are great sources of background information. Let’s take a look at each:

In the first case, reference materials are easy to defend: colleges and universities spend significant money for you to gain access to this knowledge. Granted, it is common knowledge and therefore not typically cited in your academic paper. Students skip it because it looks like extra work on the surface. Using these sources helps you to establish a foundation of knowledge critical to your topic and the field of study. What you want to do is play an old game: The Encyclopedia Game. Read a reference and when you come to a name, key concept, or word you don’t know - look it up. Do not just define the topic and concept; look for how it relates to other key figures, concepts, time (when), and space (where). You are looking to build relationships and increase your foundation of knowledge. Why? When starting secondary scholarly research, students often feel overwhelmed by the thesis, evidence, and knowledge that scholars write. It’s difficult to find traction sometimes, we all become intimidated. Rather than entering into a conversation with scholars, students often will easily side with the arguments they are reading because they have no foundation in the topic matter. Referencing empowers you to enter in a conversation with a scholar.

Mind-mapping the relationships between key figures, concepts, and significant events within a field can be a productive way for students to see how the pieces of information relate to one other. Gaining a foundation of knowledge within a topic may cause you to revisit and develop your topic; that’s perfectly acceptable. When we have more information at our disposal, we often times develop a new perspective.

Not all books are equal; you want to make sure that the book you reference has been written by a qualified author. Some scholars use books to further a thesis-driven argument, meaning that they will use evidence, case studies, statistics, and examples in the field to further their argument. How do you know if this is the case? You will find the author’s perspective or argument in either the preface or the introduction, and the author may use discourse to signal the argumentation presented in the book: “In this book, it will be argued…” You can obtain common knowledge, but this isn’t the primary focus of the author’s work.

Some books, however, are focused as an introduction to the field; these works are better for referencing. A scholar either writes these works for the “layperson” or as an intro to a newcomer. The author will not be able to include the depth of information you will find in a subject reference, rather these works are more often written in a way to present the topic's ideas in simple terms.

You will find that after reading references and books on general topics that you will be more prepared to read scholarly materials, and do what is called a literary review. Books and articles take significant time to read and you want to narrow your topic and settle on a question before fully exploring the literature. Using subject encyclopedias and references will expand your common knowledge; they are shorter. At this stage of the game, why read a 300-page book when you can improve your knowledge of a field through several 1500-word entries? Reading takes time and focus, so make sure you give yourself a quiet space to mindmap and take notes.


  1. This step will help you refine your topic.
  2. You will answer your basic question, gaining more knowledge, allowing you to ask deeper questions.
  3. You will test your own assumptions about a topic. Expanding knowledge means verifying your own knowledge and closing gaps between what you don’t know and what is known.
  4. You will find key words to use when searching the literature.
  5. Subject encyclopedias often make references to scholarly works in the field, helping you to do secondary and primary research.

It's difficult to determine what information in our world is valid. Again, this is where your professors and reference librarians are your friends. Below are a couple of resources to help you differentiate from sources are popular or scholarly. Part of developing a scholarly mindset is to be selective of the source material you reference while you are researching, even when you are searching for background information. Besides, you don't want crap to stink up your research or your paper: it will affect your grade!


Why should you use reference sources?

This video covers the 5 reasons that you should use reference sources. 

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4. Research Question Hypotheses

You’ve done the leg work, flushed out a topic, and have done tertiary research on the background of the key players and ideas on a field of study. You have enough foundation to ask a research question. A good research question is like a compass, helping you to navigate the mountains of literature that all fields possess. It’s at this point that I always like to suggest that you seek out a professor or an expert in your research field as a sounding board to discuss the merits of your question. This takes vulnerability. You are a student, who is seeking answers; our job as professors is to guide you on this journey.

A good research question has a few key characteristics: It’s interesting, relevant, intellectual, inclusive (thinking from different perspectives), and knowledgeable. It’s not the type of question that has a single sentence as an answer, and it’s not too broad or ambiguous. It shows your academic community that you’ve put intentionality of thought behind it. A good research question is clear, focused, concise, complex and open to debate. It will take several data points, examples, and pieces of evidence to answer, which will ultimately help you formulate a thesis: an educated, argumentative answer to your research question. As you discover more information, it's perfectly fine for your research question to change.

Here’s a great handout from Duke University, with details on and examples of research questions. Now that you're armed with your research compass - the research question - you are ready to navigate the literature and venture off into the databases.

"You have to do the research. If you don't know about something, then you ask the right people who do."

- Spike Lee (Film Director)

Spike Lee is spot on: If you don't know, ask someone who does. College is about the exchange of ideas. An important part of exchanging ideas is knowing what questions to ask. When in doubt, ask instead of struggling.

How you you get a good research question?

This vide will show you how to get a focused question and how to make a “good” question.   


5. Use Databases

6. Evaluate Information

5. Use Databases

With a research question in hand, it's now time to find an answer.  Yes, you can easily go online, and in a google search you can find an answer to your question.  What you often times find on the web, like Wikipedia entries, are sites that give basic answers.  When conducting research, you are not looking for basic answers.  You want scholarly answers, which are going to give you evidence and in-depth analysis.  Authorship is key when conducting research in college.  You are looking for expert, educated opinions held in the scholarly fields; the experts are peer reviewed, which means that their research underwent a rigorous review of other scholars in the field.  This research will have both data and evidence you as the reader can verify.  Strong scholarly writings also engage other viewpoints in the scholarship.  Simply put, Wikipedia doesn't cut it.  Certainly there are appropriate online sources: Google Scholar and .edu websites will sometimes have sources you can use to answer your research question.  Depending on the assignment and class, your research should include the following:

1. Scholarly articles.
2. Books.
3. Primary Sources; first-hand accounts.
4. Case studies. 
5. Experiments.

To get these sources, you will have to, yet again, go to the Library/Learning Commons.  The Reference Librarians are your friends in this process.  They will help you learn the databases you will need to access in order to obtain the above scholarly sources.  Every database has an algorithm, and reference librarians familiar with the algorithms are experts in using search terms to give you the best possible results.  They will empower you with this skill so that you can become more self-directed.

The Library Catalog, EBSCO, JSTOR, PubMed, and Worldcat are the basic databases you want to get familiar with straight away.  Depending on the field and institution, there will be more specialized databases.  You will find that when you transfer to University, there are entire libraries dedicated to different fields of study.  Databases house scholarly books and articles that will help you in your quest for educated answers to your question.   What's great about Worldcat is that if our institution doesn't have a book or an article you are looking for, you can get it through interlibrary loan.  IMPORTANT NOTE: it will take usually three weeks for a source to come through interlibrary loan; be proactive. For most freshman classes, six sources tends to be the average, but don't be surprised if your instructor asks you for more.

More than a pro tip, gutting a Book is a survival tool for research.  There are so many books and articles out there in these databases that trying to read every single one is overwhelming.  Have you ever spent hours reading a book that did not even coincide with your research?  When you are culling sources, you will find that often times there are several sources that could benefit your research.  Before reading them, gut them.

1. Read the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion. 

2. Identify the thesis of the book: this will be the author's argument or purpose for writing the work. 

3. Starting with the first chapter, read the first and last paragraph in its entirety.  Here, you are identifying the focus of the chapter, and considering how the author will present their argument.

4. Read the topic sentence and concluding sentence of each paragraph inbetween the first and last paragraphs.  Topic sentences may be one to three sentences long; read until you have a clear indication of what that paragrpah is about (don't read the entire paragraph).  You will want to read the paragraph if the topic sentence and concluding sentences alert you to evidence or examples that may relate to your research.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for each chapter.  Why? You may find a chapter within a book that relates to your research: it may be chapter 13.  You need to gut the entire book.

6. PRO TIP: In writing their books and articles, authors have already done research.  Be sure to visit their bibliographies to find additional sources, especially if you find that book that relates to your research topic. 

7. Other considerations: read Book Reviews.  Book Reviews should not be cited in your final bibliography, but a good book review will share different perspectives and arguments that will make you research more dynamic.  A good research paper should consider different points of view. 

Read short articles, but you can gut longer articles.  What makes gutting articles tough is that the focus of an article is usually specific, to the point that the examples and evidence used are crucial to understanding the nature of the argument being forwarded.  Articles tend to be full of substance, and less narrative, unlike book.  Articles are usually published in journals for specialists and research students alike.

1. Read the abstract: get a sense of what the article will present.  

2. Read the first section of the article, and the last section; find the thesis.

3. Read the topic sentences and concluding sentences, but skim the article.  

4. Remember to check the bibliography for additional sources.

All books and articles that pass for valid sources related to your research should be added to your working bibliography.  You will then need to READ these works for your research.   

What are databases and why you need them.

Search engines only show what people make accessible while databases will let you search what is not freely on the web. This College student explains the benefits of using library databases for research over searching the web.


6. Evaluate Information

Scholarly sources are creditable; not all creditable sources are scholarly.  You may used popular magazines, like Time magazine, to find a topic.  Time is a creditable source, and has lots of great and informative articles.  It doesn't not go through the same rigor or peer review process as a journal, like Speculum. News papers can be great primary sources, but they are not considered scholarly sources. 

What do you need to look for in a scholarly source? 

Investigate the author. Look for the credentials of the author; make sure that the author has the authority to write the article you are considering for research.  What's the author's expertise; what degree does the author hold; what's the author currently writing; where does your author work?  If the author is an authority, the author still needs to use evidence and cite their research using citation (MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and yes, the Harvard Style).  You also want to make sure that the source has been peer-reviewed.  Has your source been published in a professional journal or from a reputable press.  

Another word for bias is prejudice.  Without sound reason, a person holds an inherent believe about an issue or a subject without considering the evidence.  Scholars are human; they fall victim to bias, especially if they do not consider evidence from different perspectives. "Telling the truth about history," states Joyce Appleby, "takes a collective effort." Everyone has bias, outright or implicit.  Like the quote above, good research takes a collective effort.  To help avoid bias, look at what several scholars say on an issue.  How many different perspectives can you find?  What do other scholars say about what your author researched?  You can usually find other points of views in either book reviews or scholarly articles, where another author might forward an antithesis, or a different point of view.  If done properly, you will find out if your author's intention possess a high degree of objectivity, or if they have an agenda.  Verification is central not only to weighing evidence, but also to eliminate bias.

Since you've done background research and you're practicing verification, you can begin to sense if the author's work is accurate.  This doesn't mean that the author was trying to dupe you; the evidence and facts around an issue can change with new information.  Is your source provided you with the best information?  Can you verify the facts and evidence that the author provides in the article?  Is the information up-to-date? If there are a multitude of errors in a source, simply find a better source.  You don't want your research to adopt the errors of scholarship that's out of date or inaccurate.  Beware: just because a source is old, it doesn't mean that it's not a good source. 

Make sure that the sources you've select to be in your Work Cited or Bibliography are relevant to the scope of your research.  If you're researching the consequences of the Black Death in medieval Europe, then a scientific article on the modalities of how Yersinia Pestis spread from the host to the victim is perhaps not the best source.  You'll learn a bunch of cool stuff, but you will spend a lot of time on a piece that's not relevant to your research.  That's a time suck from more beneficial source material.  The source should relate to your research topic, and help to answer your research question by providing useful evidence and analysis.



Again, book reviews can help with the scholarly dialogue: they can indicate if an older source is what we call a definitive source.  Old or new, definitive sources are staples in research because scholars view them as holding some of the best and most authoritative information.

We've established that the Reference Librarians are your friends.  Tutors in the Learning Commons are also your friends.  They will help you navigate databases and look at source material.  When in doubt, come to see us professors.  We really do love having academic conversations.  Below is a short video on the CRAAP test. 

What is the CRAAP test and why should you use it?

This video goes over what CRAAP stands for and how you can use it to evaluate resources. 


7. Cite Source Material

8. Share Research

7. Cite Source Material

Citation is an important part of research. When you cite, you are doing what’s called due diligence, which means you are taking responsibility legally for giving the proper credit for a quote or an idea you are using in your research. Citation also helps your reader to follow your thought process and follow the evidence. Citation may be buggy, but it’s an important part of showing the work you’ve done in the research process.

What confuses students the most is that every field has a different form of citation. English uses the Modern Language Association (MLA), Psychology uses the American Psychology Association (APA), and History uses the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Your instructors will help guide you on the citation style for their courses. Other than nuisances in formatting, what remains consistence is why you would use citation.

  • Taking a direct quote as evidence.
  • Paraphrasing an author’s  idea.
  • Taking the structure of an author’s idea or argument.

The Learning Commons has tutors to help you in the Writing Process; the tutors there can empower you to learn the details of each. You can always refer to your style guide that you acquired in your English course. This is one book you don’t want to sell back to the publisher. It’s an important reference. The Purdue OWL is always a strong online resource to use; the cite is filled with example research papers so you can get a feel of what your paper should look like.You will find that as you progress in your education, you will start to use one citation style more frequently than the others.Hang in there; I know that sometimes you may think it’s busy work, but citation helps you to avoid academic dishonesty or plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional. We as faculty want to see and are excited to see the lengths of exploration into the scholarship you underwent to come up with your own conclusions.

Don't let the different styles of citation frustrate you.

Citation is about paying attention to detail, and the most frustrating part of citation is the details in the formatting.  Do not throw away your style guides in your English courses; if you did (or sold it back), then go to the library, and look for the proper citation guides for MLAAPA, or the Chicago Manual of Style.
The Purdue Owl is another great online resource for you to use.  The tutors at the Learning Commons at PPSC have sessions to help you guide through the process. Visit them, and ask them question.

What is a citation and why do we use it?

Citations are pretty standard in academic writing and lets readers see the connection between different articles and writers. This video explains more on the reasons we use citations


Understanding Plagiarism and what makes something Plagiarized.

This video goes over different types of plagiarism and how you can make sure your work is not plagiarized when using sources. 


8. Share Research

Sharing your research is important, because not only are you getting the opportunity to show off what you’ve learned, but you also are taking a courageous step to be a part of a scholarly community by participating in the scholarly discourse.  It can be nerve-wrecking sharing your research, but it’s important experience.  You never know what the future may hold; being able to give an elevator speech (a shortened presentation), and fielding questions, and explaining your line of reasoning are all important skills beyond the community college classroom.

You may present in front of your class.  This is good experience.  You should actively seek opportunities to present your research in a larger forum outside your classroom.  In STEM, the Mathematics Department has a Math Symposium; Student Life also holds a Multicultural Awareness Conference; soon, PPSC will have its own Undergraduate Research Forum.  There’s a regional opportunity with the Colorado Undergraduate Research Forum (CSURF).  Taking these opportunities are resume or curriculum vitae builders.  Not only can they help you secure a place in a highly competitive university, but they can hone the skills necessary for your next job. 

  •  An Ignite Talk, or a Pecha Kucha Presentation.  These presentations limit the amount of PowerPoint Slides, which usually have a prescribed time that automatically switches slides. The slides usually have images relevant to the topic, and they demand that you as the speaker the images to life with the ideas of your research.  This means that these presentations take deliberate practice.  The idea of these time presentations is that you are concise, and those attending the presentation will follow up with question.  You don't need to purchase any programs: access PowerPoint through your Student Office 365 account, found in your Student Portal.
  •  A traditional PowerPoint presentation.  This is an elongated presentation that demands you get into the detail of what you’ve researched.  This will give you more time to dive into your thesis (argument), and present a more in-depth analysis of your evidence and conclusions. 
  •  A Poster Board Presentation.  Using either a template or a PowerPoint slide, the student creates a 36”x48” poster.  In this poster, you will have the following elements: an abstract and overall question that guided your research, a definition of the problem, methodology used, charts of showing results of your own experimentation, the literature important to the research usually cited in a bibliography section, and finally your conclusions.  You will stand by your board and greet those who show interest.  You give a presentation structured by the logic of your board.  You will typically receive questions or comments from those who are present.  

Self-care is an important bit that students and academics alike often don’t pay enough attention.  We all need to recharge our batteries.  Celebrate your accomplishment by doing that thing which brings you back to center and energizes you.  During this process, it’s important to step away from your research, and allow your mind to rest. 

Yes, I am telling you to read that favorite book, go out with family and friends, see a movie, go on a hike, take a drive, and party safely.  If you are not balanced, then you will become fatigued.  Everyone’s endurance and self-discipline are different.  You will come back with a new perspective, or a new way to phrase or present a part of the research that may have been challenging. 

Where I challenge you (and even myself as a professional) is to improve my ability to focus for longer periods of time.  Finishing your research will give you a sense of accomplishment; you will look back on these moments with pride.  These moments are the building blocks to your professional life. 

How to make an Academic Poster In Powerpoint.

This video shows you a simple 8 step process for making an academic poster for a conference, specifically in PowerPoint.


How do you make your Research Poster stand out? 

This video has tips for creating a great research poster for a conference, from the Poster Illustration team at AJE.