Tag Archives: research

Asking the right research questions

by Samantha Bronkar

If you receive a research paper assignment and are

–  not sure where to start and/or

–  unfamiliar with the topic,

you can start by asking questions!

Here are a few I find helpful to this process:

Why ask a question instead of going right for the thesis?

  • A research question provides clarity for your searches.
  • Unlike a research topic, a research question lets you to explore what you are interested in even if you don’t know what you are looking for.
  • Asking a question takes the pressure off because you don’t need to know the answers right away.
  • It comes from your interest.


How do I develop a research question?

  • Consider the scope of your paper: Is it a two-page reflection? or a ten-page analysis?
  • Consider research: Do I need to look at outside sources to answer this question? If so, how many?
  • Consider breadth: Are these questions too broad or too narrow?


How do I know if questions are too broad?

  • The question addresses too many sub-topics at once.
  • You cannot answer the question fully, even after several research attempts.
  • e., What happened during the Middle Ages?


How do I know if questions are too narrow?

  • The question only addresses one date, location, person, idea.
  • You can answer the question with a simple search.
  • e., When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?


Here is an example:

If your assignment is to write a four to six-page paper on some aspect of William Wordsworth’s poetry, you could ask:

  1. How did William Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister, Dorothy, influence his writing?
  2. How did the [social or political] context of Wordsworth’s time influence his writing?
  3. How did the location of Wordsworth’s home influence his writing?


Key concepts to remember:

Consider these ideas the next time you ask a question:

  • Scope
  • Research
  • Breadth


Samantha Bronkar is a senior on the softball team and will be participating in the England Abroad in fall 2017.   

Annotated bibliographies: assets to the writing process

by Bailey Bischoff

Writing annotated bibliographies can seem like busywork. After all, if you found the article or data from a reputable source, why do you need to talk about its validity? However, annotated bibliographies can be used for much more than just proving a source is valid and relevant. Annotated bibliographies are one of the best ways to getting a jumpstart on writing a paper.

What is an annotated bibliography, and why is it so useful? Let’s break it down. Each annotation should include a summary of the source, an evaluation of the validity of the source, and the relevance to your eventual paper.

1) Summary: The summary should detail the content of the source, as well as the purpose and intended audience. Through describing the source and intended audience, you will start to get a better idea of how the source will fit into your paper. The more you know about your sources, the more you will be able to easily incorporate them into your paper!

2) Validity: Evaluating the validity of the source is essentially an argument that your paper will be supported with the right kind of information and can help you identify whether or not you have a good variety and number of sources needed to write a thoroughly researched paper. This section includes gauging the author’s bias and authority, which means you might have to do some background research on the author. Also, take into consideration when the source was written and whether that affects relevancy to your topic.  Understanding the scope of your research (and identifying any holes) can save you from doing last-minute research after writing your paper, only to find that it your paper wasn’t as well-researched as you had intended.

3) Relevance: Establishing the relevance of the source is really just summarizing the value of the source to your specific project or purpose. Writing on the relevance of the source forces you to think about how the information it provides fits into your paper. Touching on the relevance in an annotation can get you thinking about the organization of your paper, an important pre-writing step which will help your paper flow together better.

Summarizing and evaluating the relevance and usefulness of each source gets you to think about how each source will fit into your paper. After writing an annotated bibliography, you should be ready to write an outline and identify where more research is needed. Instead of being an unnecessary, meaningless task, writing an annotated bibliography is a great way to start writing a well-rounded, thoroughly researched paper!


Bailey Bischoff is a political science major in her senior year of college.

Unlocking the secrets of databases

by Jessica Barker

Now that the semester is in full swing, many of us are beginning to think about upcoming research papers. Unfortunately, the task of researching can sometimes seem daunting, especially when you are trying to find information about an unfamiliar topic. Luckily, there are three simple database search tools you can use to help make the research process a breeze!

  1. Proximity Operators

A proximity operator is a tool that you can use to find articles that contain your search terms within a certain number of words of each other.  Some examples of proximity operators are W/S (within sentence), W/P (within paragraph), W/# (i.e. W/3 is within 3 words), and N/# or NEAR # (i.e. N/5 or NEAR 5 means near 5 words of each other). To use a proximity operator, all you have to do is place the operator in between your search terms and click the search button. Some databases, like JSTOR, even have a preset list of proximity operators that you can choose from!

  1. Truncation

Truncation is the act of breaking a word into its simplest (root) form and putting either an asterisk (*) or an exclamation point (!) after it, in order to find articles that contain any form of that particular word. By doing this, you are able to broaden your search results. For example, if you were to type the word “education” into a database, you would only get articles that contain that exact word. However, if you were to truncate the word education to Educat* you could get search results that contain the words “education,” “educating,” “educated,” etc.  Although truncation is normally helpful, truncating a word too early can broaden your search results too much. For example, if you were searching for articles on economics and you entered Eco* into the search bar you may end up with articles that are related to ecology rather than economics.

Note: Use an asterisk (*) in most databases, but not all; in LexisNexis you need to use an exclamation mark (!) to truncate. 

  1. Phrase Searching

Phrase searching allows you to find articles that contain specific phrases. This narrows your search results and helps you find more articles that are related to your topic. You can use phrase searching by putting quotation marks around the phrase that you want to search for. For example, if you type “writing tutor” into a database you will get results that contain that exact phrase. However, if you type the words writing tutor into a database without quotation marks you may get search results that only contain one of those words (writing or tutor).


Happy researching!

Jessica Barker is a sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in sociology and anthropology. After college she hopes to use theater to create social change, and empower others.


Jump start your research

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Do any of these descriptions fit you?

  • I am not sure where to start in my research for a specific topic.
  • I only have a vague idea about the area I would like to explore deeper.
  • I don’t have a thesis or any background knowledge on my chosen subject.

Then the frustration has an end right here and now! Here are three starting points:

  • Key Terms
    Sometimes we underestimate how key terms and search words can help us in starting the research process. We can use them to understand what we are really researching, to establish the parameters of our interest, and to find the right material for a stellar paper. Sit down for five minutes and make a list of terms—synonyms and ideas that float through your mind about the general area of your interest.
  • Book Reviews
    Once you have your key terms, use a database appropriate to the discipline of your topic and refine your search. Your key terms can help you locate articles on your topic, and find sources that give you some more general information to help you move forward: reviews and book reviews. Just check the boxes telling the database to search for these in addition to articles. This has been some of the most helpful advice as I search for material for my capstone. Book reviews typically give you background on the topic or general area, names and further key terms, a list of resources besides the one reviewed, and a summary or in-depth information of the area you are interested in. All of that in a small number of pages. In other words, book reviews are essential to expanding your understanding of a topic, finding resources, and knowing where you want to go next in your research!
  • Definitions and Encyclopedias
    There are many encyclopedias and dictionaries found through our Principia Library website* that you can access for in-depth articles on specific words. These articles often explain the heritage of the word but also give a lot of history, context, and further resources to consider. Having a solid understanding of the key terms will help you branch out into new areas you might not have considered before and will plant you on a solid foundation in order to deliver a bullet-proof argument. Examples of excellent dictionaries are the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Gale Virtual Reference Library. These resources are amazing because, since you’re a student, you can access them for free! Don’t underestimate the power of definitions.

*To find the lexica or dictionaries on the library website, scroll down on the homepage to the first box, then click Dictionaries & Encyclopedias.

Anna-Zoë is a first semester senior working on her final studio art portfolio and global perspectives capstone. She just returned from the Prague Abroad is excited for the last two semesters at Principia.

Master the mechanics of quote integration

by Haley Schabes

When writing a paper, it is important to integrate the quotes you are using correctly. You never want to just “drop” a quote into your paper. Dropped quotes interrupt the flow of your paper and risk leaving your paper without a sense of cohesion.

There are four ways to correctly integrate a quote into your writing:

  1. Introduce it with a complete sentence and a colon (:)
  2. Use an introductory phrase and a comma (,)
  3. Include the quote as part of your sentence without punctuation
  4. Use only small snippets from the quote in the flow of your own sentence


Now this might be a bit hard to understand, so let’s give some examples for each:

How to introduce a quote with a complete sentence and a colon:

In Experience and Education, John Dewey explains that failure is important to learning: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes” (Salkind 393).

Notice: If you use a complete sentence to introduce a quote then use a colon (:) before you place the quote. Don’t be tempted by a semicolon or comma.


How to use an introductory phrase and a comma:

John Dewey explains the importance of failure in learning when he says, “failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes” (Salkind 393).

Notice: Place the comma between the introductory phrase and the quote. You can introduce the quote using verbs such as says, states, believes, asks, questions, and many others.


How to include a quote without punctuation in a sentence:

In Experience and Education, Dewey explains that “failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes” (Salkind 393).

Notice: The word “that” replaces the use of the word “says” from the previous example. If you use the word “that,” you do not use a comma in the sentence to introduce the quote.


Finally, here is an example of how to use snippets from a quote in your own sentence:

Dewey explains that failure is not an obstacle for “a person who really thinks” but is “instructive” (Salkind 393).

Notice: You do not need punctuation if the quote fits into the flow of your own sentence.

WARNING: In all of the above, you do need to CITE the quote. For more on citing and quote integration, click on the “citation” category at the top of this post and you’ll find more posts and lessons on the subject.

Happy quoting!

Haley Schabes is a senior majoring in business administration and minoring in education, economics, and Asian studies. Her current aspiration is to teach English abroad after college.


Works Cited: Salkind, Neil J. “F.” Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. p. 393. Google Books. Web. 16 September 2016.

Make this database search your best yet!

by Maddi Demaree

Has anyone else had that sinking feeling when you type your search term into a database and there are thousands of results? Or the fear that strikes through your heart when only a couple resources about your topic pop up? While we have a wealth of scholarly information at our fingertips thanks to the Principia College library online database system, sometimes it can feel like too much!

I’m sure none of you have the time or the desire to sift through thousands of articles and books on your topic—so why not let the computer do your work for you?

There are three special words (AND, OR, and NOT) called “Boolean Operators” that will help you narrow or broaden your search quickly and easily. Utilizing these words as part of your search terms will inform database more specifically about what you’re looking for.

I’ll give you a few examples of how to use each word.

AND – narrows your search

You use “AND” to specify two terms that you want to appear in the same article. For example, if I am writing a research paper about domesticated cats, I might make this my search term:

cats AND domestic

               OR—broadens your search

You use “OR” if your initial search did not produce enough results. Using “OR” will bring up all the resources for both of your search terms. For example, if I am writing a research paper about the realist theory in political science as applied to the Gulf War, I might search with

“realist theory” OR “gulf war”

so that I can find all the resources on realist theory and on the Gulf War.

NOT—narrows your search

You use “NOT” to specify a term that you do not want to appear with the rest of the results. This is probably a pesky term that is not actually related to the topic you want to research. For example, if I am writing the same paper about domestic cats, but resources about jungle cats keep appearing, I might search:

cats NOT jungle

This search would keep resources about jungle cats from appearing, because it is telling the database to look for all the resources about cats, but to exclude any resource that mentions “jungle” cats.

Using these three terms will help you refine your searches to make them efficient, effective, and, your best one yet!

Maddi Demaree is a junior majoring in education. Last spring she traveled on the Finland Abroad.

From apathy to discovery: Research tips

by Sydni Hammar

Like most students, I have found myself faced with a writing assignment that I simply didn’t feel interested in doing. Oftentimes, this apathy stems from the fact that I don’t feel inspired to write because I’m not excited about the possibilities of my topic. However, I have discovered that I am inspired to dig into a topic when

  1. my research is guided by my own questions, and
  2. I feel that there is a real possibility that all of this questioning might lead to a new discovery or understanding.

Digging into new material or questions is inherently satisfying because I get to have fun in the process of uncovering a mystery. Annie Proulx shares this delight in the essay “Inspiration? Head Down the back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales.”* Proulx explains how she sees the potential for discovery in virtually everything she encounters in life. She discusses a “need to know” which enables her to conduct research driven by curiosity. Simply put, she is in touch with her curious nature, and she has made a habit of indulging it. This “need to know” attitude exists because she asks questions, and she has to find answers.

As writers, we must approach our research with the same authentic curiosity and openness to discovery. One of my English professors once told me that the biggest mistake students make in research is to go into it already knowing what they are looking for. I have found this to be very true, since for me, this approach limits my research, and it’s boring! There is no room for discovery (which is what makes an exciting paper) if you already know what you are looking for.

Therefore, you can’t make a discovery without the desire to know or question. Below are a few strategies for developing a curiosity for your research.

  • Ask yourself (and your resources) questions!
  • If you find an article you like, see if other scholars have cited it. It can be very helpful to see what other scholars are saying about your topic! This strategy is called bibliography mining, and Google Scholar is a great tool for this.
  • Look for buzzwords or patterns. Scholarly articles often have subject terms listed above or near the abstract, and you can use these to see connections between different ideas in various articles, which can create a roadmap of discovery.

With these tools, you are equipped to dive into meaningful and exciting research!

Sydni Hammar is a junior majoring in English, and works as an editor for Mistake House, a student-run literary magazine at Principia College.

*Proulx’s essay appeared in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times (2002).

The art of annotations

by Samantha Bronkar

Have to read an article for a class? You could just read it—but what if you could have a conversation about it instead?

Often, we can expand our own thoughts and ideas when we talk about them out loud. You can think of annotating an article as having a conversation with the author. If you are reading an article that appears dense or uninteresting, physically taking notes on the article (along the margins) helps you to actively engage with the article.

When you annotate, you can (and should):

  • Ask your own questions
  • Paraphrase or summarize what the author claims
  • Take note of your own thoughts
  • Underline or highlight key phrases, quotes, individuals, dates, and ideas*

*Tip: You may find it helpful to color-code your annotations. For example, you can use an orange pen to note questions you have, a blue pen to note the author’s claims, a green pen to note your own thoughts, and a red pen to underline key dates, figures, etc.

Rather than reading text and trying to absorb it as you progress, annotating gives space for pausing, reflecting, questioning, and connecting ideas or themes you notice. This space can help readers learn, understand, and remember.

The beauty of annotations is that they give you permission not to understand something the first time you read it. I repeat: it is okay to not completely understand something, especially the first time you read it. In fact, having questions is a sign that you are critically assessing what you are reading, and that’s great!

As you read, take notes in the margins about things that confuse, interest, and inspire you. That way, you can easily locate those ideas in class or when studying in order to discuss them in greater detail. It’s also a good tool if you need to revisit a source when writing a research paper: your annotations will help you remember and work with a source you haven’t read in a while.

Happy annotating!

Samantha Bronkar is a junior majoring in English and will be participating in the Prague abroad next fall. She will be dearly missed.

Quick tips for tutoring

The WriteHereWriteNowWriteOn blog is written by Principia writing tutors. In today’s blog, one tutor gives tips on what it is that tutors can do to help with writing. Read on!

by Shannon Naylor

What do tutors do?

Tutors are an essential resource for any student with questions about any stage of the writing process, from research to invention to revising. Tutors can identify patterns of error or weaknesses in samples of writing. They help their tutees understand what can be refined and teach strategies for correction and improvement. Tutors are trained to handle questions about researching, developing theses and organizing papers, proper citation methods, grammar, revision strategies, and much more.

 What don’t tutors do?

Tutors aren’t professors or editors. We cannot “fix a paper so it gets an A.” We are guides, coaches, and cheerleaders. We point out areas of weakness and give you the tools you need to shore up and strengthen your writing. So while we can’t edit or proofread your paper, after working with us you should be better prepared to tackle any aspect of the writing process.

 How do I get the most out of a tutoring session?

We love to have time to prepare for your specific needs. If you know that you would like tutoring ahead of time, drop by the tutoring café and put yourself down on the sign-up sheet, and tell us what you’d like to work on. This way, if you know you often misuse commas or semi-colons, the tutor you’ll be seeing has a chance to brush up on punctuation rules, the better to help you. We also love it when you bring us a piece of writing to work with. If it’s a printed copy, even better!

Come in with questions! We can help you faster if we know right off the bat what you’d like to learn during the session. That said, don’t be afraid to walk into the café, hands empty and not sure what you’d like to work on. We can also have a lovely chat about the writing process in general.

Assignment sheets are very helpful as well so that we don’t coach you on writing an English thesis paper when you’re supposed to be writing a literature review for biology and vice versa.

While we’re happy to work with you at any point in the writing process, we tend to see a lot of students on the nights before their papers are due. If you have time, sign up to meet with a tutor a few days before the deadline. You’ll be less stressed, the tutor will have fewer students to help at once, and you may find it easier to work on bigger things than proofreading strategies when you have time to revise after the tutor session. Trust me, getting a chance to make sure your ideas are clearly presented matters a lot more than double-checking your comma usage.

I’m in! When can I visit a writing tutor?

The library tutor café is staffed Sunday-Thursday, 8-11 pm, Weeks 2-15. We even have on-call hours during exam days, so be sure to stop by the café during Week 15 and 16 to check the schedule.

Shannon Naylor is a senior studying Theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. Currently, she is working on capstones for her majors as well as the spring production of Our Country’s Good.

Do not read all the text

by Katya Rivers

So you are in college, you are having the time of your life, and then Sunday comes around and you have a paper due Tuesday. You haven’t even gotten to the point of opening Word and writing your name and the date. And the worst part is that right next to you is a stack of books, journal articles, and essays that you haven’t even looked at. You estimate the pages of dense reading that await you—well over a thousand—on this gloomy Sunday afternoon. It’s okay. We’ve all been there. You aren’t doomed.

Sure it’s doable to read all of that information, but it’s not necessary! That’s right…you do not need to read all the text. You are saved. The important thing to realize in this situation is that there is a way to get through all of that reading material and write one heck of an essay. Let’s get started.

My Perfect Strategy—from a senior who finally figured it out.

  • Read the title—Help your mind prepare for what you are about to read and digest.
  • Read the introduction and/or summary and the conclusion—Gather the most important points.
  • Take notice of boldface headings and subheadings—This helps create a structure in your thought to organize the information you are receiving and absorbing. This will help you deal with the details to come.
  • Make sure to take full notice of graphics—Charts, maps, diagrams, pictures, etc. are there to make a point. DO NOT OVERLOOK THEM (take it from someone who’s done it too many times and suffered).
  • Notice reading “clues”—Italics, bold face, print, clearly stated objectives.
  • Question—Develop your own questions as you read. This is where your thoughts begin to connect to the text in front of you, and you begin to form your own opinion on the topic or issue. This is also where magic happens, and these questions may become the birth of your thesis.
  • Always annotate and make notes, highlights, symbols, etc. —This is for future reference when you are actually writing your paper. It will help you find and reference your information and quickly access major points you related to. This is also your way of contributing to the scholarly discussion you’re in college to join.

Remember good writing always starts with good reading. Have fun!

Katya Rivers is a senior majoring in religion.