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6 Stages of Research

Walk through the different stages of the research process, breaking each step down into manageable and concrete action. This guide includes topic brainstorming, creating a research plan, finding information, taking notes, and citation.

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Ask the Right Questions

Ask the Right Questions

The scope of an investigation determines how large or small your investigation will be. Determining the scope of an investigation is the critical first step in the research process because you will know how far and how deep to look for answers. This lesson will teach you how to develop a research question as a way to determine the scope of an investigation.

Question mark bubbles

Click the image to open the tutorial in a new window.

Keyword(s):  5W Criteria, Ask the Right Questions, Guided Inquiry, Information Literacy, Library, New Literacies Alliance, Research as Inquiry, Research Question

Purpose of this guide

The purpose of this guide is to walk you through the 6 stages of writing an effective research paper. By breaking the process down into these 6 stages, your paper will be better and you will get more out of the research experience. 

The 6 stages are:

  1. Task Definition (developing a topic)
  2. Information Seeking (coming up with a research plan)
  3. Location & Access (finding good sources)
  4. Use of Information (Reading, taking notes, and generally making the writing process easier)
  5. Synthesis (coming up with your own ideas and presenting them well)
  6. Evaluation (reflection)

This research guide is based on the Big6 Information Literacy model from

Task Definition

The purpose of task definition is to help you develop an effective topic for your paper. 

Developing a topic is often one of the hardest and most important steps in writing a paper or doing a research project. But here are some tips:

  • A research topic is a question, not a statement. You shouldn't already know the answer when you start researching.
  • Research something you actually care about or find interesting. It turns the research process from a chore into something enjoyable and whoever reads your work can tell the difference. 
  • Read the assignment before and after you think you have come up with your topic to make sure you are answering the prompt. 


Steps to Developing a Topic

Read your assignment and note any requirements.

  • Is there a required page length?
  • How many sources do you need?
  • Does the paper have to be in a specific format like APA?
  • Are there any listed goals for the topic, such as synthesizing different opinions, or applying a theory to a real-life example?

Formulate a general idea.

  • Look at your syllabus or course schedule for broad topic ideas.
  • Think about reading assignments or class lectures that you found interesting.
  • Talk with your professor or a librarian. 
  • Check out social media and see what has been trending that is related to your course. 
  • Think about ideas from popular videos, TV shows, and movies.
  • Read and watch the news to see if there is anything going on related to your course. 
    • Read The New York Times  (FHSU students have free access through the Library)
    • Watch NBC Learn (FHSU students have free access through the Library)
  • Search your library for relevant journals and publications related to your course and browse them for ideas
  • Browse online discussion forums, news, and blogs for professional organizations for hot topics

Do some background research on your general idea.

  • Read an encyclopedia entry.
  • See what your course notes and textbook say about the subject.
  • Google it. 

Mind map it.

A mind map is an effective way of organizing your thoughts and generating new questions as you learn about your topic. 

  • Video on how to do a mind map. 

Ask Questions to focus on what interests you.

Who?   What?   When?   Where?   Why?

We can focus our ideas by brainstorming what interests us when asking who, what, when where, and why:

anonymous by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun ProjectWho? special education students, elementary students


what by Dinosoft Labs from the Noun ProjectWhat?  flexible seating, classroom management


clock by Iconika from the Noun ProjectWhen? Past ten years, past five years, Mid-1990's to Present


Map By Parallel Digital Studio vis The Noun ProjectWhere? elementary schools, integrated classrooms, middle schools


Cloud Question Mark by Dinosoft Labs from the Noun ProjectWhy? focus, improved test scores, less disruptive


Research Question: Does flexible seating in an elementary classroom improve student focus?

Write out your topic question & reread the assignment criteria.

  • Can you answer your question well in the number of pages required? 
  • Does your topic still meet the requirements of the paper? Ex: is the question still about the sociology of gender studies and women?
  • Is the topic too narrow to find research? 

Developing a Topic Tutorial

The following tutorial from Forsyth Library will walk you through the process of defining your topic.