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HIS 1200 American History: Where Should I Begin?

Guide to resources for the study of American life and culture.

1. Understanding Your Assignment

Before you get started researching, you want to make sure you have a full understanding of your assignment. This will prevent headaches and frustrations down the line. So make sure you make note of and understanding the following:

  • Deadline: When is the paper or project due? Are there any drafts due or bibliographical components due before the final product? Knowing the deadline will help you plan ahead and avoid any last minute rushing.
  • Scope: Is there a communicated scope to what subject matter the paper can cover? This will be important to know when you start thinking about a topic.
  • Type of Paper: Is the paper meant to be informative? Argumentative? Comparing or contrasting points-of-view? Understand not only what you are allowed to cover in your paper, but also how you are expected to cover it.
  • Length: The length of a paper will help determine how in-depth you can go into a topic and might help you determine what it is you want to cover or have time to cover properly.
  • Sources: Professors often have a certain source requirement in terms of how many sources you will need and what kind of sources are acceptable. Make sure you are paying attention to this requirement for when you start your research.
  • Citations: What is the citation style you are expected to use? Capturing the citation for sources in the right style upfront will save some headaches later on. The citation style is also important to know in formatting your paper.

2. Picking a Topic

Again bear in mind the scopetype of paper, and length when thinking about an appropriate research topic.

Tips for Selecting a Topic:

  • Pick a topic that is of interest to you
  • Make sure you select something that you can approach in an open and unbiased way
  • Explore some overviews to ensure the topic meets the assignment requirements and is something you are happy to engage in

Before you finalize you topic, make sure that it is researchable:

  • Do some preliminary searching on your selected topic to ensure there is sufficient information on the topic that is reputable and will meet any source requirements from the assignment.
  • If you do not find a sufficient amount of resources from a preliminary search, your topic maybe too narrow in focus.
  • Likewise, if there looks like there will be an overwhelming amount of sources, you may want to think of narrowing your topic.
  • Consider if you have access to relevant primary source material

Either way, since research should ultimately help drive the paper, you want to make sure the sources and information you need are readily available before you get too far into the paper or too close to an assignment deadline.


3. Creating a Research Question

Once you've picked an overarching topic, the next step is to create good historical questions that will then guide what exactly you are researching and trying to discover about the topic. Knowing how to ask good research questions is a valuable skill for all researchers and especially historians. Research questions will help you transform your selected topic into a focused inquiry that your paper will then seek to answer. It will also help you determine what type of sources you need and better understand what sources will add and contribute successfully to your paper.

Tips for formulating research questions:

  • The question should not be a yes/no question but rather open ended to give you room for exploration
  • Consider if the evidence you need to answer your question is available
  • Think about how the question might be broken up into smaller parts and if the scale is appropriate for the assignment
  • Ask a question where you can explain why the answer matters and is important
  • Avoid questions that are hypothetical, opinion based, deceptively simple, or are impossible to answer