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The Research Process: Getting Started

This guide is created to help students through the steps of writing a research paper or project.


Purpose of the Assignment

The first thing you should do is carefully read the assignment to find out what your instructor expects. I know this sounds simple, but if you're attentive when reading the assignment you can find lots of clues. 

      magnifying glass       What clues are you talking about?

• Connecting the assignment to your course content - there could be references to the textbook or assignments from class, listen for verbal clues from your instructor.

• Questions - there could be one or more questions you are required to answer. 

• Style and tone - your instructor may ask for an informal, formal, opinion, or academic tone for the paper or project.  

• Look for active verbs in the assignment description.

Active Verbs and Definitions

  • Information words ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.
  • define—give the subject’s meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning
  • explain—give reasons why or examples of how something happened
  • illustrate—give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject
  • summarize—briefly list the important ideas you learned about the subject
  • trace—outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form
  • research—gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you have found

  • Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.

  • compare—show how two or more things are similar
  • contrast—show how two or more things are dissimilar
  • apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation
  • cause—show how one event or series of events made something else happen
  • relate—show or describe the connections between things

  • Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.

  • assess—summarize your opinion of the subject and measure it against something
  • prove, justify—give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth
  • evaluate, respond—state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons
  • support—give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe)
  • synthesize —put two or more things together that have not been put together in class or in your readings before; do not just summarize one and then the other and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together that runs all the way through the paper
  • analyze—determine how individual parts create or relate to the whole, figure out how something works, what it might mean, or why it is important
  • argue—take a side and defend it with evidence against the other side

More Clues to Your Purpose
As you read the assignment, think about what the teacher does in class.

  • • What kinds of textbooks or coursepack did your instructor choose for the course—ones that provide background information, explain theories or perspectives, or argue a point of view?
  • • In lecture, does your instructor ask your opinion, try to prove her point of view, or use keywords that show up again in the assignment?
  • • What kinds of assignments are typical in this discipline? Social science classes often expect more research. Humanities classes thrive on interpretation and analysis.
  • • How do the assignments, readings, and lectures work together in the course? Instructors spend time designing courses, sometimes even arguing with their peers about the most effective course materials. Figuring out the overall design to the course will help you understand what each assignment is meant to achieve.

(provided by The Writing Center of The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)



Need more help?

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If you're still confused after reading the assignment, talk to your instructor! You may not be the only student with questions.