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Undergraduate Writing Center PLF Guide

A guide for Peer Learning Facilitators to share with students receiving writing help at the Powell Inquiry Lab.


This guide consists of information and resources that Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs) can share with students receiving consultations at the Powell Library Inquiry Lab.

Forming a Research Question

When conducting research, you don't want a topic that's too broad or too narrow. For example:

  • "I want to research women in the 20th century." This topic is too broad. Which women? What nation, race, social class, or occupation? Which part of the 20th century? If you search for "women" and "20th century" in a database, you'll have to sift through a million results!
  • "I want to research the reactions of female computer scientists working for corporations in Pasadena in the year 1993 to the dawn of the Internet age." This topic is too narrow. There's no guarantee that a scholar has actually written about this exact topic yet.

When you have a topic, put it into the form of a question--that way, you can use your thesis to answer that question. The best research questions are open-ended (not yes-or-no questions), specific enough for you to find good sources, but broad enough for you to explore the various things scholars have said about the topic. Good research questions use "action" verbs ("contribute," "influence," etc.) A few examples:

  • "How did female computer scientists contribute to the formation of the Internet?"
  • "How did the leaders of the 2nd wave feminist movement respond to the needs of African-American women?"
  • "What social factors led to the legalization of abortion?"

Check out Wayne Booth's The Craft of Research (3rd ed.), available electronically or in print through the UCLA catalog, for more strategies for developing your research question.

One more thing: don't try to answer your research question too early in the research process. Remember that research requires keeping an open mind, rather than trying to confirm what you already believe. For more information, see "Research Tips" below.

Research Tips

  • Do your research BEFORE coming up with your thesis. If you decide what you want to argue in your paper--or worse, draft the paper itself--and then try to find sources that agree with you, you may find yourself ignoring sources that would have been helpful and trying to squeeze in sources that don't quite fit. Instead, start with an open-ended research question (Example: "How does African-American literature deal with the theme of rights?") or even a general topic, and form your thesis only after you've done some reading. Trust me--the writing will come a lot easier if you already have sources to back up what you want to say!
  • Know the difference between catalogs and databases. A catalog will tell you what items a library has, like journals and books. A database will tell you what articles and essays are inside of those journals (and sometimes books). If you're looking for a general introduction to a topic, you may want to search for books in a catalog. If you want to see what scholars are saying about a topic right now, a database will be a better place to start.
  • Play with different keywords. If you enter a search term into a catalog or database and nothing comes up, try to think of a different way of describing what you're searching for. For example, if you can't find sources using the word "teens," try searching for "adolescents."
  • Remember that research is recursive. This means that you can't do all your research in one sitting. In order to really find all the sources that will be useful for your project, you'll have to visit the library (physically or online), read some sources, look for more sources based on what you find in those sources, write a little to figure out what additional information you need, and so on.
  • On that note, use bibliographies to find sources! Once you've found one scholarly article or book that's useful, look at the end to see which sources that author cited. Then, look in the catalog or databases for those sources.
  • Know the difference between scholarly and popular sources. A scholarly (or "peer-reviewed") source is something written by scholars, for scholars. A popular source is written for the general public, often by journalists. See the "Scholarly v. Popular" box on the "Databases" page in this guide for more information.
  • Finally, ask a librarian if you have any questions or are running into problems. See the "Ask a Librarian" page of this guide for different ways to contact us, or click on the "Ask a Librarian" icon to the right of this box.