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US History Final: How do I start?

Step One: Read the Assignment

In fact, read the assignment multiple times. You would be surprised at how many people skip over this step and jump right in to research. Do you know what your teacher is looking for? Is there a specific time period that you are suppose to limit your search to? Familiarize yourself with the various components of the project so that you aren't wasting your time researching the wrong thing.

Step Two: Do your Presearch

Often you will need to gather some background information on your topic before you decide on a narrower focus.  Ask yourself:
  • What do I already know?
  • What do I need to find out?
  • What information would help me answer my questions?
Initially, you may want to read some general resources to gain a better understanding of your topic.  Then, you can narrow your search by asking yourself:
  • What keywords can I use to search?
  • What synonyms, broader or narrower terms, or related ideas could I use?
  • Will proper names (people or places) focus my search?

Step Three: What Information do you need?

Is this project going to require statistics? Where can you go find them? Do you need to find images? Primary sources? Have a plan for how you will find these so that you can be efficient in your searches.

Is there a specific source that already narrows down your topic rather than searching the general web? For example if your topic is war and peace you could go straight to the ABC-CLIO US at War database where they break down each conflict into Causes-Opponents--Consequences--Primary Sources

When you are at the point that you start to formulate a thesis have you found an expert's opinion that corresponds with your idea? You can use their quotes to back up your ideas. Where can you find this? Wikipedia probably won't work. Books are sometimes the best place to find these thesis driven arguments.

How much information do you need? Are you writing a research paper? Writing a script? Short essay?  Different projects require different types of research. However, all research must be backed up by evidence. Teachers (most times) don't want to read a book report or a simple retelling of facts. They want to see your analysis.

Questions to ask yourself: How? Which? Why?

Break down your larger topic into smaller components. The answer to each of these might require a separate research strand. However, you know more than you think you do! Think of what you have learned in class already, what you have read/learned in other classes, or what you have heard on the news:

Answer the basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Using Immigration as our example topic this is how we could break it down. The same can be done for the topics of your Final Projects?

When: Immigration 1980-current

Who: Mexican, illegal immigrants, refugees,

Where: Arizona, Border fence, airports security?

What:national security, laws- Dream Act, population, English only,

Why: 9/11, economy and jobs, terrorism


So what do I do with all of this infor above? Make a mind-map. Getting some of this info out of your head and on to paper/screen is important. It might help alleviate anxiety or just having a visual to focus on might jog your brain into a new research path. Either way, if you've got too much floating around your head it is a good way to try to bring order to your list of topics (and potentially eliminate some items that aren't focused enough) or to jumpstart thinking to add potential research tracks.

Start with chaos:

1. write down all the potential ideas that come to mind about the topic/research question. Don't judge any of these ideas in the beginning. Just write them down. As you research some of these words/ideas might get taken off your list but you won't know until you start researching

2. If you are having trouble even coming up with items for this first step it is time to do some browsing. Look at some of the reference sources in the library. Browsing through the table of contents in a reference book on the subject is a great way to generate ideas. This is the time to look at Wikipedia and gather a basic understanding (knowing that eventually you will have to move from basic understanding to interpretation--which Wikipedia is not good for!)

3. Once you have your list going, look for items that can be connected. This might become more clear as you start to research. Link like-topics together and think of how these items are related. Eventually everything on your web/list should be connected. (Remember those Who? What? Where? When? Why? questions above? look for those relationships in your brainstorming list.  Outliers are ok too. If something doesn't seem to fit do some research to see if it has a place.

Research Hint

Yes, you will eventually need a thesis. However, you can not possibly start with your thesis. You don't even know what events you are going to cover. Do your research first. Once you have read several sources a thesis might start to formulate for you.This tentative thesis can then help to limit your research a bit. However, don't be afraid to shift your thesis and modify it and your searches. Things change!

Research Hint

CQ Researcher and some of the E-Books/reference books are a good place to find timelines. Don't get too caught up in details at this begining stage. Look for topics/ideas that you can then look up further. This is an identification stage.