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Selecting a Topic

  • Introduction
  • Brainstorm
  • Presearch
  • Narrow Your Topic
  • Research Question
  • Thesis Statement

Selecting a workable topic can be the most difficult step in the research process. When choosing a topic, keep the following points in mind:

  • The topic must meet the assignment's requirements.
  • Choose a topic you are interested in. The more interested you are in your topic, the more motivated you will be to research and write about it.
  • Select a topic understandable to you as you read about it.
  • The topic must be specific enough to let you master a reasonable amount of information on it in the time you have. A topic that is too broad will give you too many sources and it will be hard to focus your research.
  • Make sure sufficient, relevant information is available from appropriate sources. If your topic is too narrow or obscure, you many not find enough sources. This is especially true of local topics which may only be covered in local newspapers and not in other sources.

Follow these steps when selecting a topic:

  1. Start with a topic or general idea that interests you.
  2. Brainstorm to come up with more ideas.
  3. Presearch to find background information on the topic.
  4. Narrow your general idea into a focused, manageable research idea.
  5. State your topic as a research question you can answer with the resources available to you.
  6. Your assignment may also require you to formulate a thesis statement.

Your topic will evolve as you learn more about it. You may need to refocus or refine it based on the information you find.

 

VIDEO: Picking Your Topic IS Research! (NC State University Libraries)

Use the following questions to generate topic ideas:

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Did you read or see a news story recently that caught your interest?
  • Is there an issue or a problem that has affected you, your family, or your community?
  • Is there an issue you've always wanted to learn more about?

If you can't think of any topics, try browsing the library's Pro/Con Issues databases or look at the websites listed on the Hot Topics page.

Brainstorming

Once you have a general topic in mind, brainstorming can help you identify more ideas or potential research questions.

  • Start with your topic and make a list of all the ideas, questions, and issues related to it you can think of.
  • Don't worry about spelling or grammar. Just keep your creative juices flowing.
  • Write down everything that comes to mind, including ideas that seem silly or outlandish.
  • Then go back and look for patterns, categories, or connections between the ideas.
  • If you get stuck, set your list aside and let your ideas percolate for a while. Keep adding to it as new ideas pop into your head.
  • If an idea appeals to you, make it the center idea on a new piece of paper and brainstorm more details.

VIDEO: The Power of Brainstorming (Clark College Libraries)

 

Brainstorming techniques

Freewriting: write down everything and everything that comes to mind. Set a time limit from five to twenty minutes.

  • Write nonstop to keep your hands moving.
  • Don't worry about spelling or grammar.
  • Write as fast as you can to keep up with your thinking.
  • If you get stuck, copy the same word or phrase over and over again until you come up with a new thought.

Clustering or mapping: this technique allows you to visualize your ideas using circles, lines, or arrows.

  • Write your topic in the middle of a blank piece of paper and draw a box or circle around it.
  • Brainstorm random ideas related to your topic. Write them down in clusters around the topic and draw lines or arrows connecting them to the topic.
  • Use different shapes, colors, or lines to represent subtopics or different categories.

VIDEO: Mapping Your Research Ideas (UCLA Libraries)

Search a library database or the internet to get a quick overview of your topic. This will help you broaden/narrow it. You can also determine whether enough information is available to meet your needs.

Focus on sources that provide good background information, such as encyclopedias. Wikipedia can be a great starting point as long as you keep in mind it should not be considered an authoritative source (see Evaluating Sources). The following library databases may be especially helpful:

  • Britannica Academic - a general encyclopedia.
  • Discovery - includes Research Starters, or summary articles on popular topics. Watch this video to learn more.
  • eBook Collection - books sometimes provide an outline of a topic. Be sure to skim the book's table of contents.
  • Gale eBooks - a collection of subject encyclopedias.
  • Pro/Con Issues - databases with good coverage of current social and political issues.

Once you've identified a general topic that you like, you'll need to narrow it down to a focused, manageable research topic. If your topic is too broad, it will pull you in lots of different directions and you'll waste a lot of time looking for information you won't use. Try to pick one aspect of your topic to focus on. When choosing your final topic, keep in mind you must be able to argue a point of view and support your claims with evidence from the resources available to you.

Examine the sources you find during your presearching. They may help you identify a subtopic you would like to explore in your paper. For instance, say you are interested in fashion design. A search on that topic in the library's eBook collection retrieves many relevant titles. By examining the table of contents for each, you can compile a lengthy list of subtopics:

  • The fashion industry
  • fashion retailing
  • fashion ethics
  • fast fashion
  • sustainable fashion
  • history of fashion
  • fashion designers
  • fashion models
  • specific types of clothing and fashion accessories

Ask Questions

If you still can't think of any subtopics, ask yourself questions about your topic. The answers to those questions can reveal subtopics that might help you narrow your focus.

Who? identifies the persons or organizations impacted by the topic. Who are the stakeholders, affected populations and decisionmakers? Can you narrow your focus to a specific group or demographic, such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic status?

What? identifies the specific aspect or element of the topic that directly impacts the who. What is its nature, purpose and scope? What are its causes and effects? What are the issues and debates surrounding it? Can you focus on a specific type or example?

When? identifies the time frame. Is the topic current or historical? Is it limited to a specific time frame? Did it develop over time? Do you want to focus on a particular point in time?

Where? identifies the geographic location. Where might the topic be significant? Can you narrow your coverage to a specific region, state, or city?

Why? identifies the topic's importance. Why should we care about it? Why does it happen? What are the reasons, causes, motivations, or justifications?

How? identifies how the issue emerged or how a solution worked. How does it happen? What are its circumstances, methods, processes? How and why did it originate? How can it be improved, reformed, or resolved? How do people work for/against it?

EXAMPLE

Topic: vaccines
Who? schoolchildren (specific population)
What? mandatory COVID-19 vaccines (specific example)
When? present day (specific time frame)
Where? Nebraska (specific location)
Why? prevent COVID-19 outbreaks (specific reason)
How? other mandatory vaccines successfully prevent outbreaks (specific solution)
Narrowed topic: mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for schoolchildren in Nebraska

If your topic is too narrow, you won't find enough (or any) information about it. To broaden it, reverse the process by widening your net.

Topic: mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for schoolchildren in Nebraska
Who? Americans (wider population)
Where? United States (wider location)
Broadened topic: mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for Americans

 

VIDEO: How to Question with 5W1H (University of Singapore Libraries)

 

VIDEO: Four Steps to Narrow Your Research Topic

For another approach, watch this video from the University of Guelph Library.

Once you've narrowed your topic to something workable, restate it as a focused research question. Your research question is the question that you answer within your paper. Think of it as your research topic in question form. It pinpoints exactly what you want to find out and gives your work a clear focus and direction.

Elements of a successful research question:

  • Focuses on a single problem or issue
  • Requires analysis and can't be answered with a simple yes or no answer
  • Researchable using the resources available to you
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and word limit of your paper
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Has identifiable consequences and effects
  • Leads to possible outcomes and/or solutions

EXAMPLE

Topic: social media and academic performance
Narrowed topic: the effect of smartphones on the attention span of high school students
Research question: what effect does daily use of smartphones have on the attention span of high school students?

 

VIDEO: How to Write a STRONG Research Question for Research Papers (Smart Student)

Depending on your assignment, you may need to include a thesis statement in your paper's introduction. A thesis statement is the answer to your research question. It should state your topic, your position and your evidence. You'll work to prove your thesis statement in your paper and provide evidence and sources to back it up.

Elements of a successful thesis statement:

  • Concise (one or two sentences)
  • Clearly answers your research question
  • Clearly states your position
  • Shows how you will support your position

EXAMPLE

Research question: What effect does daily use of smartphones have on the attention span of high school students?
Thesis statement: Because it weakens their ability to concentrate, the daily use of smartphones has a detrimental effect on the attention span of high school students.

This thesis statement contains the following elements:
Topic: The effect of smartphones on the attention of high school students.
Position: It has a detrimental effect.
Evidence: It weakens their ability to concentrate.

 

VIDEO: How to Write a STRONG Thesis Statement (Scribbr)