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Brainstorm and Explore Topics: Exploring Topics

A guide to brainstorming and exploring topics designed and created by Clark Librarians

Explore and Choose a Topic

image of lady with books

Choose and Explore a Topic

So many topics! How do you choose?

How often have you put a lot of work into researching an idea, then dropped the idea and started a new one from scratch? That's a lot of extra work that you may be able to avoid with just a bit of planning and preliminary footwork.

Choosing a topic for your assignment can be challenging. This tutorial will show you some tips for making the challenge a little easier.

 

Make Sure You Understand the Assignment

The details and limitations of the assignment affect how you approach your research.

Consider:

  • What is the project format?
    • Written paper
    • Oral presentation
    • Online project
    • Media production
    • Poster presentation
    • Other
  • What kind of project is this?
    • Informative
    • Analytical
    • Argumentative/persuasive
    • Other
  • How many sources will you need?
  • What types of sources do you need?
    • Popular magazines
    • Scholarly journals
    • Newspapers
    • Books
    • Web sites
    • Primary sources
    • Interviews
    • Other
  • Do you need visuals?
  • Are there any assignment limitations?
  • How long is your project/presentation?
  • How much time do you have to work on the project?

 

Talk to your instructor if any of these requirements is unclear to you.

Getting Started with a Topic

image of lady thinkng "maybe I should write about my cat fluffy..."Your instructor may have given you a specific topic, but it's more likely that you either have a broad subject or the freedom to completely choose your own topic. Here are two tips for getting started with selecting a topic.

Tip 1: Select a topic that interests you

The more interested you are in your topic, the more motivated and enthusiastic you will be to research and understand its complexities.

  • Is there an issue you have always wanted to learn about?
  • Is there an issue that has touched you, your family or your community?
  • Is there an issue going on right now in the world that you want to understand more fully?

Even if you were assigned a topic that's not interesting to you, you may be able to find an angle on that topic that is something you find interesting.

Tip 2: Select a topic that is researchable

Sometimes you can even start with a basic idea and tweek it until you have a research topic:

  • Idea: I want to research about cats
    • Topic: How do the predatory behaviors of house cats differ from feral cats?
    • Topic: Is a domestic cat that is allowed outside a threat to songbirds?
    • Topic: What is the impact of house cats that are allowed outside on native wildlife?
    • Topic: How do domestic cats compare with dogs in responding to human emotions?

 

A quick chat with a librarian or your instructor before you start could save you some time.

Ideas for Finding Topics

If you're having trouble coming up with a topic, try these strategies:

  • Brainstorm out loud with friends, librarians, or your instructor.
  • Think about class readings and class discussions, especially if your project is for a specific discipline, like history, economics, art or anthropology.
  • Watch the evening news.
  • Browse the headlines in newspapers and magazines.
  • Scan credible news sites such as the ones listed further down on this page.
  • Browse the reference shelves of the library.  Look for books that cover a range of issues, such as Social Issues in America: An Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Social Issues and Encyclopedia of Ethics.
  • Search your library's book catalog for book series, such as Opposing Viewpoints and Current Controversies, that offer the "pros and cons" of popular topics.
  • Look through websites that specialize in providing essays and articles on "hot topics" and controversial issues. Some examples are listed below.

Some News and "Pro- Con" Websites

Collect Background Information

A little time now can save a lot of time later

image of paper with "topic ideas" written across the top, and the words environment? pollution? global warming? glaciers melting? written below Collecting a little background information on your topic idea can to help you define and focus your interest into something researchable. You can also find out if your topic is something you want to spend some time with, and if it's researchable.

Collecting background information is not the same as conducting research. At this point you're just getting a general feel for your topic. An hour spent on this step may save your countless hours later.

Jot down a few keywords (terms) related to your topic, then perform some preliminary, basic searches in general tools that can give you an overview. Some excellent tools for collecting background information:

  • Scan a few articles in reliable general, subject or specialized encyclopedias. Visit the library to see a collection of print encyclopedias, or take a look at the subject encyclopedias available at Clark College Libraries listed below.
  • Try out your keywords in a search engine, such as Google, but don't go too deep. Remember, you're just getting a feel for your topic, not doing the research.

In doing your preliminary research, if you discover that this topic has possibilities, take the time to add additional words to your keyword list.

Subject Encyclopedias

Academic encyclopedias devoted to a specific topic are a quick way to:

  • explore your topic
  • gather background on your topic
  • broaden or narrow your topic
  • find leads to other sources

At Clark Libraries find subject encyclopedias in print in the reference collection, or online in Gale Virtual Reference Library and others linked below.

Focus Your Topic

Once you have a topic that you like, it's likely that you'll need to focus it, or narrow it down. Most students start out with topics that are way too broad for their assignments. If your topic is too broad, your research will be much more difficult, and you'll waste a lot of time looking for information that you won't use.

For example, if you try searching for information on global warming, you will quickly be overwhelmed. Global warming is a large subject, covering a variety of disciplines, topics and issues. How can you narrow this topic?

Brainstorm Again!

Jot down all the ideas and questions you might already have about the topic:

  • What do you know about global warming? What don't you know?
  • Is there a geographical area you want to focus on?
  • Are there individuals or organizations involved in this issue?
  • What are some areas impacted by global warming?
    • Environmental
    • Political
    • Economic
    • Human element

It may help to set up a table or chart moving from the general topic to narrower topics:

Focusing a Topic
Topic Narrower Topic Even Narrower
global warming environment

rising sea levels
loss of rain forests
air pollution
violent weather events

  political Kyoto Protocol
Paris Climate Agreement
role of governments
  human element impact on human health
reducing use of fossil fuels
  economic agriculture
corporate responsibility
mitigating damage
  geographical developing countries
Antarctic region
loss of glacial ice

 

If the chart is too formal for you, you might like making a mindmap or concept map. A whiteboard or a big piece of paper are all you need to make a mindmap. Here's the same idea as above, but in a mindmap:

bubble diagram exploring words related to global warming

The secret to mindmapping is to free yourself from rules. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or formatting. Just jot down ideas until you can't think of anymore, then go back and make connections between the ideas. If an idea appeals to you, make it the center idea on a new piece of paper and brainstorm more details.

 

Turn Your Topic into a Research Question

Dig into your topic to find the question

Once you've narrowed your topic to something workable, you need to restate it as a question.  A question requires an answer, and research is all about the search for answers.

Here's an example:

Broad Topic

global warming

Focused Topic

global warming and world health

Possible Research Questions

How will changes in climate increase health risks for people worldwide?

What should the U.S. government do to prepare for an increase in climate-related diseases?

What is the role of the World Health Organization in response to increasing diseases?

Once you have a research question, break it into even smaller questions:

How will changes in the world climate increase health risks for people worldwide?

  • What climate changes are expected?
  • What diseases are most sensitive to climate change?
  • What areas of the world are most at risk?
  • What statistics are there to prove that health risks are increasing?
  • ... and so forth

 

You can see that research is basically a quest to find answers to the questions you are asking!

Here is the same activity as above, using the "sticky note" technique:

graphic showing several stick notes with the research questions described in text on this page, but in note format.

Your Evolving Topicimage of a bullseye with arrow point to the center

As you move through the research process, exploring sources and gathering information to learn about your topic, you may discover that your topic will change. You may need to refine or refocus your question based on the amount of information you are able to find.

  •     Too much information? Look for narrower aspects of your topic.
  •     Not enough information? Look for broader aspects of your topic.

Don't be shy about asking for help. If you are having trouble deciding on a topic or focusing your topic, talk to your professor or ask a reference librarian for help.

 

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