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.
The details and limitations of the assignment affect how you approach your research.
Talk to your instructor if any of these requirements is unclear to you.
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.
The more interested you are in your topic, the more motivated and enthusiastic you will be to research and understand its complexities.
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.
Sometimes you can even start with a basic idea and tweek it until you have a research topic:
A quick chat with a librarian or your instructor before you start could save you some time.
If you're having trouble coming up with a topic, try these strategies:
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:
In doing your preliminary research, if you discover that this topic has possibilities, take the time to add additional words to your keyword list.
Academic encyclopedias devoted to a specific topic are a quick way to:
At Clark Libraries find subject encyclopedias in print in the reference collection, or online in Gale Virtual Reference Library and others linked below.
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?
Jot down all the ideas and questions you might already have about the topic:
It may help to set up a table or chart moving from the general topic to narrower topics:
|Topic||Narrower Topic||Even Narrower|
rising sea levels
Paris Climate Agreement
role of governments
|human element||impact on human health
reducing use of fossil fuels
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:
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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.