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Keefe Regional Technical School: Pre-Search

What does it mean to pre-search?


Research begins with questions. During PRE-SEARCH you will choose a topic to learn about (or one may be provided by your teacher) and identify a specific focus for your work. You may brainstorm, talk about your topic with other people, and conduct preliminary research. By the end of this stage you will have developed a research question worthy of exploring within the guidelines of your assignment. 

You could also say the P stands for PREVIEW and PURPOSE. Spending time upfront exploring your topic and focusing your approach will make you more successful and efficient during the entire research process. Plan to spend a good amount of time reading (or at least skimming) to gain a better grasp of your subject so that you can ask a meaningful and manageable question. Much of what you read may not even be included in your end product, which is why it’s actually better not to take too many notes at this stage. That’s okay; it’s all part of the process. Take your time. In some ways, PRE-SEARCH is the most important step, since you cannot succeed without an appropriate and achievable purpose. 

Many researchers begin PRE-SEARCH feeling a little anxious or uncertain. This stage demands patience and concentration and may seem frustrating, but as you select and refine your topic, you are likely to feel more optimistic and excited. 

Pre-Search Process


Sometimes a specific topic is assigned by the teacher. More often, however, the general subject is assigned and you will need to limit it to a more manageable scope, or your teacher may allow you to choose from any topic with his or her approval. From this, you will then need to write a focused research question. 

An ideal topic should be: 

  • Interesting. Ideally you will actually WANT to answer your research question. Maybe you already know something, and want to learn more. If you find you are not interested in your assigned topic, try to find some personal connection to make it more meaningful. 
  • Focused. If your topic is too broad for the length of your assignment, you will need to narrow it to a workable scope. It should be specific and concrete, not vague or bland. You might not know enough to focus your question until you do some background reading. This is typically the most difficult and most critical aspect to choosing a topic. 
  • Challenging. Make sure that the answer to your research question cannot be answered by simply reporting facts. In most cases teachers expect you to make an argument backed up with evidence. If there is only one possible answer to your question, it is probably not sufficiently challenging. 
  • Objective. For most research assignments, the answer to your question should be based in concrete evidence or data rather than beliefs, morals, or subjective experiences. 
  • Accessible. Some topics may be too recent or too technical or difficult for your level of experience, and may need to be revised accordingly. 


In order to focus your topic and write a good research question, you will need to find and read sources that give you a broad understanding of your subject area. These resources may help: 

  • Wikipedia (really!) 
  • Print and online encyclopedias
  • Textbook chapters
  • Books written for younger readers
  • Database articles 
  • Documentaries

Your goal is to learn enough about your topic to narrow it down into a focused research question with sub-questions that you want to answer. Rather than reading each potential source carefully this is a good time to SKIM and BROWSE, looking at titles, headings, subheadings, tables of contents, etc, to get a general understanding of the debates, questions, and concerns of a particular subject area. 

Don’t start taking notes yet, just explore. If you need to keep track of your ideas, a K-W-H-L Chart can help. 

Your teacher may check in to make sure you have gained a solid overview of the subject and have chosen a focus that will be manageable. This check may include sharing out what you have learned, a student/teacher conference, or a written statement of purpose or summary of what you have learned so far.

Focusing a Question

  • More than one answer is possible 
  • Sufficiently focused for the length of your assignment 
  • Can be answered through evidence and data (not just beliefs or opinions) 
  • Interesting and/or important to you and others 
  • Challenging, but not so difficult or technical that you won't be able to understand 
  • Is an actual question (not just a topic area) 
  • Meets the requirements of your assignment 
  • Makes you think! 

After you have read and absorbed an overview of your topic, you may be asked to develop a statement of intent where you explain in greater detail what you want to learn during your research.

You can ask yourself the following questions to develop a statement of intent: 
  • What interests me about this topic? What do I want to learn or achieve?
  • What sub-questions will I need to address? These may be factual, providing background information to the reader, or require more interpretation or analysis on your part. Later, these sub-questions will guide your note-taking. 
  • What key terms are important to my topic? 
  • What are some potential resources I can use? 
  • What will your final product be or look like? 
  • What problems do you anticipate? Who can help you? 
If you are asked to write a statement of purpose, you may begin with an "I want to learn about" statement. Here are examples of how some writers went from a general topic to a statement of purpose. 
air pollution > I want to learn what the government can do to stop air pollution. 

smart phones and tablets > I want to learn how the touch-screen of smart phones and tablets work.

contemporary skyscraper architecture > I want to learn how new building and environmental technologies have influenced the ways cities are developing. 

It’s important to make sure your statement of intent is specific enough for your research. As you learn a little more about your topic, you may have to narrow your focus to make it manageable. 


Your teacher may also ask you to develop a specific research question you want to answer about your topic. This will help you when you begin researching by helping you focus on just the information relevant to your assignment. 

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to write a good research question until you know something about your topic, which is why you should do preliminary reading on your subject before you begin to take notes. 

Consider the following types of questions for inspiration:  
  • Hypothetical. How would things look different today if something in the past had changed. 
How would the world be different today if the United States had not invaded Iraq in 2003?
  • Predictive. How will something look in the future based on what it is like today?
How will social networking and government surveillance affect how people think of privacy in the future?
  • Problem/Solution. What solutions can be offered to a problem?
What policies can the government enact to ease the effects of childhood hunger in the United States?
  • Comparison/Contrast. What are the similarities and differences between two subjects, time periods, etc? 
How are the events of The Lord of the Flies similar to and different from the Cambodian genocide?

How is the legacy of muckracking still reflected in contemporary American journalism? 
  • Judgement. Based on the information you’ve found, what is your informed opinion about a subject?
Should it be illegal for minors to buy electronic cigarettes?

Source: Question types adapted from the CRLS Research Guide