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Home: Background, Keywords & Questions

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Example Box for Background Information

My first instinct was to go to the Library database page.  I looked in Britannica Online for steroids to find out what they are and what they do to your body. I didn't find out there, so I went to Google and typed in steroids.  I noticed there was a website put out by the government (the ending was a .gov) called "Anabolic Steroids."  This helped for basic information on steroids, so I printed the section I needed.   Because I think will use this later in my paper, I made sure the printout had the full URL (or web address) on it so I can cite it later.

But I still need background information about high school students and steroid use.  I went back to the Library database page, scrolled down to Social Studies and Issues.  I clicked on SIRS Researcher because I know that SIRS is good for research about issues.  I typed in - steroids high school students - and got a New York Times article, dated November 19, 2012 on teens, body image, and steroids.  This article gave me a lot of ideas, so I printed it too.   I will also cite this later.

I also checked the Library catalog to make sure there was a book on high school students and steroids because I need a book source, according to my assignment sheet.  There is one, so I will check it out later.


Background Information: Your First Sources

Background research is essential for understanding concepts, terms, events, places and people who shape this topic.  This knowledge base needs to be built before you start your formal research.  Use this information to broaden or narrow your topic, formulate research questions, and build keywords.

At this stage you really need only two or three short articles.  Don't print out ten articles or ones that are 20 pages long.  You may not need them and it may overwhelm you!


General Encyclopedias:

A general encyclopedia like the Encyclopedia Britannica (online or in print) may be useful for basic facts and for a broad understanding of your topic.   If you feel that the information goes beyond superficial facts and will provide you with details you can use later in your project, you should print or save it to use later.

Online Databases and Subject Encyclopedias:

Online and print subject encyclopedias such as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy will provide more detailed information on a given topic than a general encyclopedia.  A subject-specific online database such as ABC-CLIO is also a good choice for background information.  Sometimes a news article can be useful if you are researching current events.  Use an article from a database, online, or from a print newspaper or magazine (ex. National Geographic Magazine,, Gale Group or Student Research Center). 

If you think you will use the information found in these sources in your research paper, you should print or save them to use later.  These sources contain more expert, in-depth information than general encyclopedias and most websites. 

Below are web addresses to the Library databases and to the catalog for subject-specific reference books and e-books (get home login and password):

Library database page:
Library book and e-book catalog:


At this stage, it’s O.K. to Google your topic.  Since you are just trying to learn more about your topic, it’s permissible to do this.  Find a reputable website with basic facts.  This will not be your formal research.  However, if you happen to find an authoritative website that you think you may use later because it has quality information, you may want to print or save it to use later.  

Keep in mind: You may find student projects online or blogs like Answers.comDo not use them for your background or formal research.  They are not reputable because the authors are not reliable.


Print out the organizer at the bottom of this box.  It will assist you in organizing your background information, developing questions, keywords, your essential question and eventual thesis statement.

Begin writing some basic questions.  These questions can be answered with a yes or no, or a single sentence or two.  They address basic facts and information that you need to understand your topic.  This process will help clarify your thoughts and enable you to write your essential question.  If you're stuck on how to get started, remember the 5Ws+H:  Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.


  • How many high school students take steroids?
  • How long has this been a problem?
  • What do they take and how do they get them?
  • What are the health effects (short and long term)?
  • How do they get caught?  What does the school do about it?  Does it exclude them from playing in college?
  • What treatment is available for steroid use, if any?


From your background information and questions, write some keywords that you will use to search.  These are words used to define your topic such as facts, concepts, dates, terms, events, places and or people involved in your topic.  Start a corresponding list of keywords that are similar to your first keywords because there are different ways to say the same thing.

My topic is: Steroid Use Among High School Students

First keyword:     Second keyword:     Other Related Words:

"steroid use"          steroid                         steroids                                             
                                                                  "performance enhancing drugs”
"high school"         teens                            teenagers
“students”              adolescents                 "young adults"
juicing                   doping                       
prevention             discipline                      statistics 
“side effects"         treatment                      body image

The Essential Question

This is a question that looks deeply into a subject for greater meaning.  It makes meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences.  It creates discussion and even more questions.  It asks for alternatives and justifies answers.  It can't be answered with a sentence or two.  Unlike basic questions, essential questions address big ideas such as concepts, themes, issues, debates, problems, challenges, processes, theories, paradoxes, assumptions, and different perspectives. 

These questions start with the words: How, What if, Should, To what extent or Why. Note: These take practice to learn how to write.  Don’t feel intimated.  Ask your teacher if you’re on the right track.


“How” questions find a solution to a problem or explain a process:
How can steroid use among high school students be prevented?

“Should” questions offer an opinion on a moral or practical problem:
Should schools offer steroid prevention programs?

“Why” questions probe cause and effect.
Why do high school students use steroids? 

“To what extent” questions ask the limitations of a situation or a range of effect.
To what extent do high schools educate students about using steroids?

“What if” questions pose a theory or hypothesis.
What if steroids were legal?

Because I would like to offer a solution from my research, out of all of these examples, I choose the “how” question: 

How can steroid use among high school students be prevented?


Subject Guide

Jennifer Jourdain's picture
Jennifer Jourdain
Montachusett Regional Voc Tech School
1050 Westminster Street
Fitchburg, MA 01420
(978) 345-9200 x5125