The word “research” makes many students anxious. However, when you break the research process down into steps, practicing this important skill can actually be incredibly rewarding. Once you've identified a research problem that's not only appropriate for the assignment but also right for you, the rest of the process will feel more manageable.

Understand the Assignment

Your first important step is to understand exactly what your instructor expects. You may be asked to identify your research problem from a list of allowable topics, such as, "How have ethical concerns affected the sourcing of materials in the jewelry industry?" Alternatively, you may be required to design your own course-appropriate research problem from scratch, stating it in the form of a specific, guiding, open-ended question. Note that open-ended questions often start with words like "how." For example, if the topic is gambling, a yes or no question, such as whether the habit affects a gambler's credit score, wouldn't work. Instead, you could ask how the gambler's habit might affect his credit score. Starting your research on the right track means having more time to do a good job and therefore feeling less anxious.

Choose a Topic of Interest

If you're given a list of subjects from which to choose, use your interests to narrow your decision. Don't choose a research problem related to standardized testing if you have no interest in the subject. However, if you're interested in homeschooling and have the option to write about that instead, that topic is a good choice.

It's helpful in the beginning to identify several larger topics of interest and do some primary research to see what's been written on those subjects. University librarians love helping students with research projects, so don't hesitate to ask for assistance. As you explore the topic, be on the lookout for questions with answers that require more than simple facts. Questions that have been under-explored in the field often lead to rich research opportunities.

Formulate Your Guiding Research Question

Your end-goal may be to present your findings in a paper or speech, but research reports are different from other projects in one important way: While many essays support a thesis based on what you've already learned, for research projects, you won't know what argument you can make about a topic until you've researched it. To research the topic, you'll need to start with a question that centers on a topic that can be explored through scholarly research, narrows your topic and elicits discussion, not just a short answer.

For instance, asking whether gambling is sinful would be inappropriate, since the answer relies on questions of morality, not scholarly research. Similarly, a question such as "How does gambling affect people?" is too broad. To completely answer that question, you would have to include an overview of every psychological and financial effect that gambling has on gamblers, their families, their employers and many others.

Stay Flexible

It's normal for a research question to evolve as you uncover new information. Doing research means going back and making adjustments to your search as the information that you find reshapes your thought process and guiding question. That's why it's called research, not just a search. For instance, in the process of finding out how ethical concerns affect the diamond ring industry, you may become interested in what you discover about the increase in vintage engagement ring sales in particular. At that point, you may decide that this topic makes an even better research problem than the broader one you chose in the beginning. This is a positive development as long as your evolving research fits within assignment guidelines.