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Research Strategies
Choosing a Topic


So you've read the assignment thoroughly, you know what is expected of you, but now you need to choose a topic. Here are some things to consider:

Choose a topic that interests you. After all, you will be investing a considerable amount of time and energy in the project. In some cases, an instructor may assign a subject and you will have to work within those confines. If a specific topic was assigned to you against your will and you know absolutely nothing about it, the next step in the research project, finding background information, will be very important to you.

State your topic as a question. Instead of saying, "I'm writing about chipmunk love," think of a question that you hope to answer in your project. For example, "What behaviors characterize the mating habits of chipmunks?"

Subject vs. Topic

It helps to choose your research topic by narrowing it down from a broad subject. In some cases, this will be a requirement for the assignment. For example, you may have to write a paper for an Economics class that requires you to write about some issue in (surprise!) Economics.

Some examples of subjects and possible research topics:

Subject Research Topic


"What method is best for teaching children how to spell?"
"What are the latest theories about the extinction of dinosaurs?"
"What effect, if any, does violence in the media have on children?"


"What are the latest treatments for depression?"

Know which subject your topic comes from. When you search for information, you will often need to work from the general to the more specific. Once you know what subject you're writing about, you can consult your textbook, an encyclopedia, current periodicals, or browse the shelves in the library to get an idea of what topic you would like to focus on.

Goldilocks and the Three Topics: Too broad, too narrow, or just right? After you come up with a question you'd like to answer, think about how feasible it will be to answer it within the confines of the assignment.

Example 1: The Civil War. This topic is too broad.
Unless you're planning on writing your own encyclopedia, there's way too much information here to fit into a paper. If you do a search for "Civil War" in our catalog our online databases, you will find 10,000 things written about it. Try to focus on a particular aspect of the Civil War, such as:

What economic factors lead to the Civil War?
What role did free northern African-Americans play in the Civil War?

Example 2 : A study of trees. Way too broad.
What aspect of trees are you talking about? Their biology? Their role in the environment? Sap? The lumber industry? There are thousands of different directions you could take this topic.

What are the healing powers of tree bark?
Should the lumber industry be given more restrictions or more freedom

Example 3 : Does yelling at young football players motivate them? This is probably too narrow.
Assuming you could find any study that dealt specifically with youth football and yelling, you certainly wouldn't find much. In these cases, you may want to expand your terms. Think of synonyms or related words:

Yelling could be expanded to negative reinforcement or verbal abuse
football could be expanded to sports in general.

You'd be more likely to find information dealing with verbal abuse and youth sports, or younger athletes and motivation.

Example 4 : Everything you ever wanted to know about the exploding toilets, but were afraid to ask. Definitely too narrow.
I'm not up to date on the exploding toilet literature out there, but I'm assuming there's not a whole lot of it. You'd have to come up with some broader concepts for exploding toilets, such as plumbing accidents, or exploding objects, or, if it's just a rumor, something like urban legends.

Your topic may change as you find (or don't find) more information.

Make sure to clear any topic with the instructor before getting too far along in your research!


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