Even if you are a strong writer, a college-level paper can be daunting. Here's advice from an expert on taking the first steps – conducting solid research.

If you recently enrolled in an online degree program, you could be staring into the face of your first college research paper. And if the bulk of your writing until now has consisted primarily of text messages and to-do lists, your palms understandably could be a bit sweaty.

Even for people who love to write, a college research paper can be an intimidating beast. It's likely longer than anything you are used to writing and, as an academic paper, it is built on solid research — not skillful prose. You can't mask a lack of information with a large vocabulary or flowery turns of phrase.

Because research is so important, you want to make sure you get off on the right foot with your paper. Sandy Hawes knows research and the particular challenges online students may encounter. As Saint Leo University's online services/reference librarian, Hawes is dedicated to assisting students enrolled in the university's online degree programs with research strategies and the library's electronic resources.

Hawes shared five tips to take students from choosing a topic to the moment they sit down to write.

1. Make sure your topic aligns with available resources.

Each written assignment gives you an opportunity to put a personal spin on the class you are taking by allowing you to explore an aspect of the course content that you find interesting or meaningful. But before you get too far, Hawes says to check the library's holdings by doing an initial search using a precise but brief phrase describing the topic you have in mind. You'll see whether there is material sufficient to meet your needs.

Coming up short? Don't abandon your idea yet. Ask a librarian for help. "Our familiarity with the collection and with how information is organized for retrieval can greatly streamline the process of identifying the supporting materials you need to write your paper," Hawes says.

2. Get to know the library's "discovery" search.

Run your initial search through the "discovery" search box on the library's home page to find a wide variety of print and electronic materials. Use the on-screen limiters to filter out only the materials available from the Saint Leo library, which carefully collects resources that support the courses the university offers and the assignments made.

The library's "discovery" search feature is similar to a Google Scholar search but with the added benefit of actually linking you to the electronic resources you have available from the online library. Hawes says students can get frustrated when they use Google Scholar because they can easily find citations but have a harder time locating the actual materials.

3. Save your mental energy by seeking support.

Don't fumble your way through the search process and don't waste precious time trying to figure out databases. A librarian can help you quickly locate and initially evaluate resources.

Only able to work on your paper late at night?

That's OK. Hawes responds to emails with screenshots or audio clips to answer questions. She helps students locate, fill in, and submit the online form to request that a book chapter from the print collection be scanned and emailed to them. She also records and posts course- and subject-specific webinars on finding, evaluating, collecting and using research materials. Time-strapped students may find quick answers in short video tutorials as well.

"If you spend all your time and intellectual energy simply struggling to locate supporting e-books and e-journal articles for your paper," Hawes says, "where is the mental energy supposed to come from for the time it takes to read, reflect upon and write about your subject?"

4. Evaluate your sources.

Some searches result in an overload of reference material. Determining which resources will be best to include gets easier with practice. A series of questions called the "CRAAP" test can help you evaluate the information you uncover. CRAAP stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. For each source, ask yourself:

  • Currency: is the information timely or recently updated?

  • Relevance: does the information relate to my topic or answer my question?

  • Authority: is this information from a writer or organization whose authority is accepted or respected?

  • Accuracy: is the information a rant or supported by evidence?

  • Purpose: is the purpose of the information to inform, persuade, sell or teach?

5. Use notecards.

Plagiarism is a serious problem, even when done unintentionally. Keep careful track of your notes to avoid plagiarism and cite your sources properly. Hawes suggests note cards, either old-school paper index cards or electronic, such as EasyBib. You can use the library's license for the upgraded EasyBib package that offers a Notebook feature for creating, categorizing and collecting electronic note cards while you read and then toggle to an electronic outline while you write. Quotes are tied directly to citation information.

Never alone

Most importantly, remember you are not in this alone as you tackle your first college research paper. Your librarian is your "guide on the side," Hawes says. Ask for and accept help at any point along the way.

What was the experience like for you as an online degree student writing your first college paper? Share in the comments below.

Photo credit: Javier Brosch on Shutterstock.com

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