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The idea of research is a foreign concept to many students, because although professors and teachers require you to include a given number of secondary sources when completing an essay, no one bothers to teach you what this research is supposed to accomplish, and how to go about doing it. This leaves many students wasting hours and even days doing research that is either totally beside the point or of only marginal use, which can severely affect both your grades and your ability to finish the paper on time. There is, however, a general research system that works for most types of essays at the high school and college levels, and by following it you will save time and produce better papers.
The first step is to identify the major topic you have been assigned to write on. For example, your professor might have told you to write something about World War II. Now, this is far too general a topic to write on, so you will need to reduce it to something more specific. In this case, something like "chemical warfare in World War II" would be appropriate, as it is sufficiently narrow to cover in a single paper, and still broad enough to give you something to write about. Once you have chosen this specific topic, it is now time to turn to the internet.
There are one or two excellent free online encyclopedias that should be the first place you turn whenever you need to do research on a topic. By searching various terms like "chemical warfare" and "World War II weapons," you will discover brief but highly useful articles about your topic. These can be used themselves as sources unless your professor has made online sources off-limits, but even in this case you will gain an excellent overview of your chosen topic which will help with the rest of your research. These sites will often contain links within them to other related topics, and by following these, and the links provided in those articles, and so on, you will lead yourself to more and more specific information. Also, this will give you many excellent terms which you would not have known otherwise, which will allow you to do other searches more efficiently as well.
From here, you might choose to narrow your topic even further, since you have learned more specifics. "The German use of Mustard Gas in World War II," or even in a specific battle, might be appropriate at this point, depending on how much information you have been able to find so far. At this point, it is time to look for some physical texts (if you think they will be useful, or if they are required by your professor). Begin by typing the most specific terms into your library's search engine; you may well find enough sources this way to stop your search here. If not, gradually enter increasingly general search terms until you begin to find works that fit your specific topic. This way, you will find the most relevant information first, meaning you can terminate your research time far more quickly than you could by going from the general to the specific. Make sure to look in the index of any book you find to make sure it deals with your chosen topic in sufficient detail.
Finally, if you are still in need of further sources, consult the references pages of those works you have found. These may be somewhat harder to track down, but they are very likely to be on topic, and almost all universities have a loan agreement with other schools which allows you to get these books in a timely manner even if they are not available at your school. This option is not available if you are really pressed for time, which underlines the point that even if you practice efficient research techniques, the earlier you start the easier your task will be.
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