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TRIO SSS: Develop & Search Your Research Topic

This guide contains resources specific to the needs of TRIO students enrolled in the Steps to Success TRIO curriculum.

Research Mindset Tips

Research is an open-ended exploration and that your ideas and thoughts might (and should, probably) certainly change along the way. 

When you're starting out, choose an idea or topic that both interests you AND that fits the parameters of your assignment. Then, as you search for information and even as you begin writing your early drafts, you'll find your topic will refine, refocus, and sometimes change entirely. 

Be creative and flexible! 

The words you use to describe your topic may be different than the words used by the person who created the information you need to find. Challenge yourself (and give yourself enough time) to search, read, discover new terms, and then search again. Research is an iterative process! 

Step 1: Develop Your Research Question and Refine your Topic

Developing a research question or topic requires time and often takes place throughout the research process.

If you have a general topic you are interested in exploring for a class assignment, it can be helpful to brainstorm a list of possible research questions you might explore -- and brainstorming more questions than not are beneficial. Use the following lenses to help you brainstorm questions about your topic. 

The "Research Lenses" table is adapted from Buffy Hamilton who writes at The Unquiet Librarian blog.

Which one? 

Informs perspectives or choices by synthesizing and comparing information about topic(s). 

Example: Which social media technology of the past 5-10 years has had the largest positive impact on personal relationships?


Explores solutions or perspectives to particular problems or topics.

Example: How should we solve the problem of rising student loan debt? 

What if? 

Explores solutions, perspectives, and options; can help form hypotheses. 

Example: What if the United States had national paid parental leave requirements, similar to that offered in countries like Denmark, Finland, and Iceland? 


Explores ethical, moral, or practical ideas of solutions based on available information. 

Example: Should state money be used to fund school voucher or savings plan programs? 


Explores connections and relationships that contribute to a topic or issue. 

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

DO THIS: Try it out. See if you can add questions to this running list of research questions. 

Step 2: Start with the main keywords!

When searching library databases and search tools, keywords are key. 

Before you begin your search it is good practice to develop a handful of keywords or phrases. Use the following strategies to help. 

  • Write a sentence describing your topic or question to your friends. Circle or highlight the main words -- these are keywords. 
  • Now do the same thing, but describe your topic or question to your professor. Circle or highlight the main words. 
  • Who cares about your topic? Who cares enough to write about your topic? You might add the names of these people or groups. 
  • Can you come up with synonyms for any of the words you listed thus far? 
  • Are their words that broaden or narrow the scope of your existing words? 
  • Can you think of different words or phrases that describe the who, what, when, where, and why of your topic or question? 
  • Note that you will continue to develop keywords as you search. This is in part because you will encounter new academic or specialized terms and phrases that describe your topic, and your topic might develop, narrowing or broadening, as you develop a deeper background understanding. Many people will keep a running list of keywords as they search. 
  • PRO TIP: As you search library tools and databases, look for any 'Subject Terms' listed as describing resources you discover. You will often find these in the article descriptions. These are words and phrases that academics and librarians develop to describe research topics and can make fantastic keyword searches. 
PRO TIP: If you need to find scholarly (academic, peer-review) journal articles use the filters! Most library search tools and databases will have a filter that allows you to limit your results to those items considered to be scholarly. NOTE: Search tools and databases may differ and could use any of the following terms: scholarly articles, academic articles, peer-reviewed articles. 

TRY THISSee if you can add anything to the existing keyword list. Is anything missing? If so, add it to the list.

Step 3: Read and Understand the Article

Given all the resources available to you through The University of Iowa Libraries you need to develop strategies for filtering out the irrelevant and finding the stuff that meets your needs. 

You'll also need to develop strategies for reading lengthy academic articles quickly. Scholarly articles tend to have similar structures and sections. Knowing how to skim these sections to determine if something is relevant to your research is a good skill to develop. Follow the steps below

  1. Read the abstract, then the introduction. 
  2. Read the discussion and/or conclusion sections. 
  3. If what you've read is relevant, continue on to read the finer details of the article contained in the introduction,methods, and literature review sections. 
  4. If the article is still relevant, sit down and read through the article again, for comprehension. 
  5. As you read make note of passages that answer your research question or in some way connect to your research topic.