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RHETORIC: I-Search Assignment

This guide was developed in collaboration with Rhetoric TA Kaden St. Onge during the spring 2022 semester. The guide provide process based guidance and resource suggestions to support students' I-Search paper research.

Choosing a Topic

Step 1: Locate a Primary Source

Find a primary source you want to use to begin your research. It should be something that strikes your interest and that says something about a specific event or issue. Use the databases on the "Finding primary sources" tab to help you in this search. Remember, your primary source is a first-hand, unmediated perspective of an issue. Your goal is to interpret your source and connect is to a larger cultural conversation.

Step 2: Observe and Analyze

Take note of the details of your primary source. Some examples of questions to ask yourself: What do you notice first? What do you see that you cannot easily explain? What is something you see that you did not expect? 

With these questions in mind, start forming an analysis of your primary source. Some things you can think about: Who was the audience for this work? Who made this and for what purpose? What issue is it addressing and what perspective does this source take?

Step 3: Develop a Question

Now that you've formed an analysis of your source, start thinking about what questions still remain unanswered and what new lines of questioning have arisen. What are you still wondering about? Formulate a research question that will help you find some answers about your primary source and that will eventually lead to forming an argument about the issue you've chosen.

Writing a Good Question

What makes a good research question? A good question should have all of the following characteristics:

1. It should be open-ended and invite answers that are complex and nuanced. You should not be able to answer your question with a simple yes or no, and it should not be able to be answered by a simple Google search.

2. It should be broad enough to cover a range of sources but narrow enough that it stays specific. If your question is too narrow, it will be difficult for you to find sources that help you answer it. Conversely, a question that is too broad will give you too many irrelevant sources to filter through. See the tab on "What are good search terms?" on the left to help you with this.

3. It should avoid vague language and value statements. Especially when looking into complex and controversial issues, it is important to avoid making value statements in your questioning. Asking if a certain Supreme Court decision was "good", for example, is not as helpful a question as who supports it, why, and what outcomes does it hope to achieve.

Finally, remember that these are guidelines, and your question should always be open to revision. As you read and discover more information, it is inevitable that you will encounter information that contests and further complicates the question you already have, and the question you end up answering may not be the question you began with. Part of being a good researcher is adapting to new information and making adjustments to your research plans.

Question Generating Prompts

The table below provides descriptions of types of questions you might generate about your topic. Use the question stems to help you brainstorm. 

Question types chart
Question stem Description

Which one? 

Purpose: To collect information to make an informed choice. 

Example: Which social media technologies developed in the last fiver years have had positive impacts on personal relationships?


Purpose: Understand problems and perspectives, weigh options, and propose solutions. 

Example: How should self-driving cars be regulated?

What if? 

Purpose: Use the knowledge you have or learn to pose a hypothesis and consider options. 

Example: What if the United States government erased all public student loan debt? 


Purpose: Make a moral or practical decision based on evidence. Often followed by a why question to provide justification. 

Example: Should we provide military veterans with free health care? Why? 


Purpose: Understand and explain relationships to get to the essence of a complicated issue. 

Example: Why do students expect to get a good job after completing a college degree?