Module 2

Choosing Your Topic

This module covers methods for choosing and narrowing the topic of your research project.

When you complete this module, you will be able to:

- define the purpose of your research.
- broaden and narrow a topic.
- build a research question from your topic.
- create a plan for your research.
- determine what information you need.


Before you choose a topic, consider why you are looking for information. What is the purpose of your research?

For academic research, make sure you understand your assignment before you begin your research.

For professional research, it may be related to a job task or to your professional development to stay current with information and practices in your field.

For personal research, it may range from find the showtime for a movie or planning a vacation to addressing a medical concern or investing in a home.

For this tutorial, we will focus on an academic purpose.

After you understand your assignment, you need to decide on a topic.
To help generate ideas, you may want to:

- browse magazines or journals that interest you or that relate to your class.
- talk to your classmates and/or your professor.
- do some exploratory searches in a Library Database or in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
- talk to a librarian.

But whenever it is possible, select a topic that interests you. It will make your research and assignment more enjoyable.

Once you know your basic topic, think of ways to broaden or narrow your topic so it fits your assignment.

Topics are like the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You don't want one that's too broad or too narrow. You want one that's just right.

Too Broad Topics 

Broad topics are too general and have little to no direction. They are difficult to cover in detail in your assignment and are hard to research because there is too much information.

Broad topics retrieve hundreds or more results when you search.

Too Narrow Topics

Narrow topics are too focused. They can be covered in specific detail but not meet the required size of your assignment. They are difficult to research because there isn't much information.

Narrow topics retrieve less than 10 results when you search. This can also happen if the topic is too current. Remember how information is created after an event occurs from Module 1.

Just Right Topics

Just right topics have a focus and a direction for your research.  They fit the assignment by covering the topic and by meeting the size requirements. Also you can find enough information to examine the topic in detail.

When you start with a broad topic, you will need to focus or narrow it to fit your assignment and to be just right.

First ask yourself, what do you know about the topic? What don't you know about it?

Then, think about ways you can focus your topic. Here are a few:

  • Time period,
  • Geographic region,
  • Population,
  • Viewpoint, and
  • Kind of information.

Example -

Broad Topic: Education
Time Period: Present
Place: United States, Rural
Population: Elementary, College
Viewpoint: Economic
Information: Websites, Newspapers, Magazines, Journals

Just Right Topic: What are the current economic issues concerning rural colleges in the United States?

If you're topic is too narrow, thus making it difficult to find information, you will need to broaden it.

First, think about any related topics or issues that will expand your topic to more information.

If you need to broaden it further, consider some of the below areas.

  • What additional time periods can you cover?
  • What larger geographic region?
  • What broader population?
  • What other viewpoints?
  • What about comparing and contrasting two topics?

Example -

Narrow Topic: Economic impact of sweat shops on development in South Asia

Related Topics: Labor practices, Imports, Child endangerment, Working conditions
Time Period: Present
Place: Developing countries in Asia and South America
Population: Workers, Children, Women
Viewpoint: Economic, Labor
Compare/Contrast: Location

Just Right Topic: What are the difference in labor practices between developing countries in Asia and South America?

Now you have a topic that is just right for your assignment. However, before you begin searching for information, you will want to formulate it into a research question.

So why should you create a research question rather than just using your topic?

Because a research question will direct your research by giving you a question that seeks an answer. Your searches and the sources that you use will help you to answer the question you've posed.

To formulate your research question, try using one of these question starters: Why, How, or What.

Avoid closed questions that only require a yes/no answer.

The next step is to develop a plan for your research. With a plan, you will be more efficient and less stressed, and you will retrieve more relevant information.

Thinking about your topic and research question, decide what types of sources would best support your research.

Your assignment may already direct you to some types of sources you need such as journal articles and books. However, you may need more information than what is required depending on your topic, or you may not be given any guidelines to what types of sources to use.

This is when you need to remember the contents of Module 1.

To start thinking about your plan, consider some of the below questions.

  • What is the timeliness of your research? Current? Historical?
    Use the Creation of Information to determine what sources will have the appropriate information.
  • Do you need primary sources? Or just secondary sources?
  • Do you need scholarly sources such as journal articles? Or popular sources such as magazines?
  • What sources best suit your topic?
    For example, books for topics dealing with history and literature; journal articles for topics in science and psychology
  • What sources are appropriate for the final product you will create (written, verbal, visual, or multimedia)?
    For example, a video may be better for a presentation rather than a paper.
  • What sources would be best for your audience?
    Scholarly sources would be best for your professor and classmates. But if your audience is elementary students, magazines and newspapers may be preferable.
  • What sources support the purpose of your research?
    For example, opinion articles would be better for persuasive (convincing your audience to do something or to change their ideas) than for informative (educating your audience).

You’ve completed Module 2. You should now be able to:

define the purpose of your research.

broaden and narrow a topic.

build a research question from your topic.

create a plan for your research.

determine what information you need.

You are ready for Module 3 - Building Search Strategies.