Library Research Guides > Help Guides > Choosing Topics & Search Tips

Choosing Topics & Search Tips

This tutorial will cover how to explore an area of interest and narrow down to a specific topic you can use for an assignment.

Step 1: ExplorE Topic Ideas Broadly

Watch short excerpts from these two videos to learn how to complete preliminarily research.

How to search for an encyclopedia in PRIMO:

Need some Topic suggestions?

  1. Search your textbook or syllabus for course relevant topics of interest
  2. Try this list: U-Michigan Research Topic Ideas (Website)
  3.  Read an encyclopedia entry about your topic:

How to Use Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a great way to identify subtopics and keywords of a topic.

Step 2: Mapping your Ideas

Exploring your topic conceptually before you start searching  will make finding sources easier.  

Why? → It’s easier and faster to evaluate potential sources when you know what you need.  

TIP: Mindmup is a great free mind mapping tool online.

Step 3: Writing your Question

You’re ready to choose a possible research question to test search.

Remember, your research question should:

  • fit the requirements of the assignment (assignment length, type of argument, source type requirements)
  • Be answered with evidence from information sources (not yes/no questions)

 For example:

Q: What is the negative affect of water pollution on children’s development in the United States?


Step 4: Identify your Concepts

Concepts (definition): main ideas that interact in within your research question

Before you can search you must determine your main concepts. The 4 W questions often help with this: What, Where, Why, (When)

 For example:

Q: What is the negative affect of water pollution on children’s development in the United States?

  • What: child development
  • Where: United States
  • Why/How: Water Pollution

Step 5: Brainstorm Keywords

To search library tools you must translate your concepts into words or phrases that a computer will understand.
All concepts must be represented in the search you create.

Q: What is the negative affect of water pollution on children’s development in the United States

Concept #1: Child Development
Possible Keywords: “child health” OR “child development”
(opposites): “illness” OR “disease” OR “sickness”
Concept #2: Water Pollution
Possible Keywords: “water pollution”
(opposites): “water safety”
Concept #3: United States
Possible Keywords: “United States” OR “United States of America” OR U.S.
Possible search filters to use: Location (if available)
Example Search String: “child development” “water pollution”
Advanced search with "child development" in the top box and "water pollution" in the bottom box

Optional: Video

Step 6: Create a Search Plan

Questions to Answer with your Search Plan:

  • Information Authority: Who is an expert on this topic?
    •  Possible answers: government officials, researchers, scholars, professionals (teachers, nurses, ect), first-hand witnesses
  • Information needed: What type of information do I need from experts?
    • Possible answers: data, arguments, facts, background information, opinions,
  • Source type: What format/sources will this information be in?
    • Possible answers: books, newspapers, journal articles, magazines, data sets/statistics, websites
  • Search Tool: In what search tools will I find these sources?
    • Possible answers: Primo, Library database, Google Scholar, Google,
  • Search Terms/Keywords: what terms or keywords will I use to search?
    • See Step 5. hint: use academic vocabulary for finding scholarly sources

Sample Search Plan:

Authority: government officials, researchers
Information need: proof that water pollution caused or contributed to poor development in children.
Primary Sources: children’s health data from the US, research studies,
Secondary Sources: journal articles, magazine articles, government websites(?)
Search tools: Primo, Academic Search Complete Database,,
Keywords: “water pollution”, “water safety”, “United States”, “child development”, “child health”,

Where are my sources located?

Library Locations different resources

Need Help Making a Plan?

Librarians can help you choose appropriate library tools, information source types, and keywords for your search plan.

Ask a Librarian Help Form
Research Help Desk Hours

Help Guide Suggestion:
Choosing and Evaluating Sources
Primo Quick Start Guide


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