Step 1: Question

Students: Your goal in this first step is to learn enough about your topic to identify a specific question to answer or a hypothesis to test.

Teachers: Your goal is to generate interest in a topic and guide the learner to generate a question that can be researched and answered.

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“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
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~ Zora Neale Hurston
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About the Research Project Calculator

The Research Project Calculator offers students a simple and comprehensive five-step model for navigating the research process. The skills involved in this process will prepare students not only to conduct academic research, but to make life decisions—whether defending a thesis related to the causes of civil war or selecting a new car.

The goal of the teacher guide is to:

  1. Assist teachers with creating research projects that require learners to analyze information in order to draw conclusions or make recommendations.
  2. Provide teachers with direction in guiding students through the five-step process.

In a research project, teachers:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Ensure that students have the necessary information and technical skills to be successful.
  3. Ensure (along with librarians) that the necessary resources are available.
  4. Manage the timeline.
  5. Evaluate the product.

Information literacy coach

The most important teacher role in the research process is the role of information literacy coach. Following in the tradition of Socrates, the teacher asks the right questions at the right time in order to guide students and keep them on track. These methods are timeless, but today we also have high-tech resources and tools infused at each step in the process. Your students may have the technical skills for searching for information and producing media, but they still need you to ask the necessary questions to ensure engagement, understanding and reflection.

To help you meet these goals, this guide provides:

  • Exercises
    The exercises build skills to prepare students to navigate the research process. Think of the exercises as "dribbling" practice—basketball players do not become proficient in the game without time spent in repetition of basic skills such as dribbling the ball. Use these exercises to develop the necessary skills for your students to be champion researchers!
  • Tip sheets
    Tips sheets provide you with a basic introduction to information resources and technologies.
  • Guiding questions
    The guiding questions serve as an information literacy script—offering questions that teachers frequently ask students in the research process.
  • No time? Suggestions for condensing each step
    For the busy teacher these suggestions maintain the integrity of the process, but require less classroom time.
  • Standards
    State, national information and technology literacy standards related to the research process.
The traditional details of bibliography cards, outlines, citation formats, etc. often result in a view of the research process as daunting and tedious. Our goal is to help you bring the student to see the research process as empowering and rewarding.

About working with your librarian

Your librarian is your partner in instruction of the research process. Making the most of this partnership will ensure that you have the best resources available for each step in the process. Use your librarian for help with

  • Accessing print and digital collections from your school and other libraries.
  • Creating an resource web page for your assignment.
  • Conducting searches and evaluating resources.
  • Accessing lesson ideas for various parts of the process.
  • Using bibliography tools to streamline the process.

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Instructional Planning Guide for the librarian:

The librarian may wish to record information about your project. This form may serve as a guide for your collaborative notes.

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Before you begin...

Make ‘em curious

After creating your assignment, one of your first tasks is to inspire curiosity in your students. If you are successful, their curiosity will help propel them through the steps of the process, making the experience easier for everyone. You can simply tell a good story and start asking questions. If you're not a storyteller, show a film or photos, bring in an object, visit a museum, introduce a website, read a poem or attention-grabbing scene from a book, invite a guest—the list of options is endless and depends on your students and your topic.


  • To introduce questions related to the home front in World War II, a history teacher brought in an old leather hat with a fleece lining. The hat had been worn by his grandfather, who worked making goods that supported World War II.
  • To introduce a project on interpretations of Columbus' discovery of the new world, the library media specialist came into class and claimed a student's purse as a discovery (arranged with the student in advance.)
  • For a project on chemistry, the teacher brought in a new drink that had gelatin-like capsules suspended in the drink and asked the students to list questions about the drink and its chemical properties.

Make ‘em care

Encourage your students to choose a topic in which they have a personal interest. A topic with some element of controversy will be more interesting to research. A question with a unique answer will work best. Think of the difference between an essay that explains the different kinds of cats and their care and one that makes an argument that cats make better pets than dogs. Or, instead of an oral presentation with a electronic slides that summarizes the theories about global warming, ask the students to identify a solution, a concrete step they can take, or a recommendation to a government organization.

Keep ‘em honest

Careful construction of your assignment is your first defense against student plagiarism. Offer students an opportunity to view their topic from a personal perspective. Research that only asks for a regurgitation of the facts is boring and an invitation to plagiarize.

Requiring students to begin their research with a unique question is the next most important step in the prevention of plagiarism. You will want to check with students at each step of the process. With the abundance of free research papers available on the Internet, detecting spot plagiarism and wholesale copying can be a challenge. Asking students to start their project with a personal and unique question and checking in with them at each step is the best insurance against these problems.

Show ‘em the end

Take time at the beginnng of the project to explain your evaluation process. You might consider reading the last page of this guide first. Turn to Step 5 and take a look at the ideas for evaluation. Share the recommended evaluation rubric or create one of your own.

Student sees:

What do you know about the assignment?

Before you begin, you must be able to answer the following:

  • What are you supposed to be doing and why?
  • What will the completed project look like?
  • Who will your audience be?

You might be able to find some guidance in your course syllabus or a handout describing the assignment. If you are unsure about what you should be doing, meet with your professor to ask for clarification.

What do you want the students to learn?

This is where you as the teacher need to decide what the goal of your assignment is—specifically, are the students learning how to research or are they learning about the topic?

What instructions have you prepared for your students?

Write a set of guidelines for your students.

Student sees:

What do you want to know?

List facts you already know about the topic. Discuss your topic with peers, a librarian, and your professor.

Search smarter. The internet and the library's reference resources can provide the background information you need to improve your search. Instead of searching for Facebook and bullying, you may get better results searching for "online social networks" and bullying, or cyberbullying.
Books are a great place to start research. They often outline the topic for you in the table of contents and the index at the back of the book lets you search for key terms.

You will need to:

  • Look for better key terms to describe your topic - better key terms will even change your Google results!
  • Research (read, view, and/or listen) until you can identify an aspect of your topic to study closely
  • Consult a variety of sources (internet, books, articles, videos)
  • Manage your time wisely - OhioLINK books take 3 to 5 business days to arrive here and articles ordered through Interlibrary Loan can take up to 10 business days.

How do you move the student from a topic to a question?

Depending on the skills and knowledge of your students and the goals of the assignment, you can leave all possibilities open; provide a list of topics for each student to generate an original question or explore a topic as a group and generate a question.

Student sees:

What's the question or problem you will focus on?

Identify a specific research question or a hypothesis. This question will give you focus for the rest of your research process. You will look for information that answers the question or supports the hypothesis.

Remember that research is searching again and again (re search). Every time you search, you should look for a way to improve your search.

Research is not:

  • Combining a paragraph from an encyclopedia with a couple of paragraphs from web sites. That's plagiarism.
  • Outlining prior research studies. That's just a summary of previous research.
  • Rewording each phrase and citing each source. That's just a summary of facts with someone else's name on them.

Research is:

  • Applying new information to old studies.
  • Taking a fresh look at existing research and forming a hypothesis or question to explore.
  • Going beyond facts and prior research.

After you develop a focused question or hypothesis, you can start searching for the answer to your question.

Why do you want the student to focus on a question?

Answering that question becomes the focus of the research.

"Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available." (University of Washington, Research 101)

Related Standards show / hide

Schedule | Question | Gather | Conclude | Communicate: Essay - Electronic Slides - Video | Evaluate | Start Over | Printer iconPrinter-friendly view

The Research Project Calculator is a project funded jointly by MINITEX and MnLINK to develop Cool Tools for Minnesota secondary school students and their teachers. It is based on the original Assignment Calculator from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

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