Main Concepts

Identify the main concepts in your research question by selecting the nouns important to the meaning of your question. Leave out words that don’t help the search, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and usually, verbs.

Finding the main concepts in a research question is a lot like finding the main idea in an essay or story. Often the main idea is in the first paragraph, but not always. Sometimes it’s in a later paragraph or even in the conclusion. The same is true with research questions—the main concepts can be at the beginning, middle, or end. Stick to the nouns and only what’s necessary, not already implied. Don’t read in concepts that are not really there or unimportant. Be alert to words that may have connotations other than the concept you are interested in. For instance, if you identify depression as the main idea, beware that the search engine won’t automatically know whether you mean depression as a psychological state, as a condition of the economy, or as a weather characteristic.

Example: How are birds affected by wind turbines?

The main concepts are birds and wind turbines. Avoid terms like affect (except the noun) and effect as search terms, even when you’re looking for studies that report effects or effectiveness.

Example: What lesson plans are available for teaching fractions?

The main concepts are lesson plans and fractions. Stick to what’s necessary. For instance, don’t include: children—nothing in the research question suggests the lesson plans are for children; teaching—teaching isn’t necessary because lesson plans imply teaching; available—available is not necessary.

Sometimes your research question itself can seem complicated. Make sure you’ve stated the question as precisely as possible (as you learned in Research Questions). Then apply our advice for identifying the main concepts as usual.

Example: Does the use of mobile technologies by teachers and students in the classroom distract or enhance the educational experience?

Acceptable main concepts are teaching methods and mobile technology. Another possibility is mobile technologies and education.

Watch out for overly broad terms. For example, don’t include:

  • Educational experience (it misses mobile technology).
  • Classroom distractions (too broad because there are distractions that have nothing to do with technology).
  • Technology (too broad because the question is focused on mobile technology).

Exercise: Main Concepts – Select all that apply


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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