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COM538 Research Skills Guide: Identify

Identifying what you need

Planning an effective search strategy can save you time and retrieve more relevant results

At this first stage, you need to work out:

  • what the assessment is asking you to do
  • how you are going to search for answers to the question

If you are confused or unsure about the assessment topic, ask your lecturer or tutor who will be happy to talk it through with you.

Topic Analysis

A topic analysis will help you to clarify and understand what your assessment question is asking you to do.

You will generally be given three key pieces of information:

  1. The key topic or concept words direct you in what to research.
  2. The limits or qualifiers tell you the specific focus of the topic or concept.
  3. The task or instruction terms tell how you are to deal with the content. CSU has a list of explanations for common instruction words.

Once you've broken your topic down into parts, it will be easier to work out what information you need to search for.

Here is an example of the topic analysis process, using a question adapted from Assessment 2:

In this assessment you will be taking a critical look at your own communication in the workplace. 

a) Discuss and critically reflect on the utility of the Johari Window with reference to your "four selves". Refer to DeVito's "four selves" theory
b) Choose three of the workplace-related topics listed below and reflect on your interpersonal communication competence and how it may fit with your own competencies, again with reference to the Johari Window characteristics:

  • self image
  • gender issues at work
  • verbal and non-verbal skills
  • etc.

Some of the keywords you might identify from this question include:

Instruction words

Reflect, critically reflect

Key concepts Communication in the workplace
DeVito's "four selves" theory
the Johari Window
Communication competence
Limits Your interpersonal communication competence
Your "four selves"
[Your chosen three workplace-related topics]

Finding background information

Finding background information on your chosen topic before you pick a claim might seem like doing more work, when you could just jump straight into in-depth research, but it actually provides you with important context that can make the rest of your research project more efficient.  

There are a number of places to find background information:

  • Reference resources like encyclopedias and dictionaries
  • Reliable websites (from informed or authoritative sources; see the Evaluate tab for how to check)
  • Books, including manuals and textbooks
  • Some types of news articles, including reviews, feature articles and explainers.

While you shouldn't use Wikipedia as a source in an academic paper, it can be a fairly reliable source for background information. Citations in Wikipedia articles can sometimes lead you to other good sources, especially on contemporary topics. 

Topic Analysis

Find additional keywords

Dictionaries and encyclopaedias can help you to find additional keywords and get an overview of the concept.

In the Oxford Reference search box below, enter some of the keywords you've identified from your assessment question and note down any alternate keywords that you find.

Find your definitions by searching Oxford Reference Online


Write down the key concepts from your topic and have a go at brainstorming as many alternative keywords and phrases as possible.

Thinking about your topic in this way forces you to describe your topic in "other words", which will provide you with some useful keyword alternatives as well as help you to cement your understanding of the topic.