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Columba Academy: Choosing A Topic

Choosing A Topic

1.  Brainstorm possible topic ideas.

  • Consider your personal interests.
  • Engage in conversations in class or with friends.
  • Read articles in encyclopedias or dictionaries and review class readings.
  • Browse recent issues of newspapers, magazines or journals.
  • Browse the shelves for books on your subject (see book locations chart on the library home page).

2. Review assignment requirements.

       •  What kind of assignment is it - 5 minute oral presentation, 10 page paper, 50 page paper?
       •  How much information do you need?
       •  Does it need to be recent information?
       •  What types of publications do you need - newspapers, books, journals, magazines?
       •  What formats do you need - printed, visual, audio,  electronic?
       •  Is point of view an issue? Do you need opinions?

3.  List keywords to define your topic.

  • State your research topic as a question.
  • Think about the significant terms, concepts, and keywords that describe your topic. These terms will become the key for searching for information about your subject in library catalogs, online databases, and other resources.
  • Sample keywords for research topic "How did New Deal programs influence the arts in America during the depression?":
    • New Deal
    • United States
    • Depression
    • Art
    • Federal Aid to the Arts

4. Gather background information on your topic.

  • It's hard to get started if you don't know much about your topic.  Do some general reading in things like encyclopedias and subject-specific dictionaries to get an overview of the topic.  This is also a great first step towards refining your topic.

From Duke University Libraries, Library Guide -

Browse for Ideas

Narrowing your Topic

 If you're finding too many resources, consider narrowing your topic to make your results list more manageable.  Less, but more relevant, information is key.  Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Aspect  or sub-area: Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group: Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.
  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding the high rate of failures in animal cloning.   cc


More Suggestions:
--State your topic in the form of a research question or thesis statement.

--Ask "how" or "why" questions rather than who, what, when, and where questions or yes/no questions.

--Be specific by focusing on a particular person, age, aspect, type, place, time, its relationship with a second topic, or a combination of two or more of these elements.

--Always look for additional good keywords to continue the search.

--Use specific words, i.e., use poetry instead of literature.

--Add more keywords to your search.

--Use the Boolean connector AND to narrow your search; AND retrieves documents which include 
   both terms in the search such as "gun control" AND "second amendment"

--When searching for books, look at the subject field in the record.  Click on it to see a list of subtopics and narrower terms.

--Locate a good article from the research databases, such as ProQuest, and use words from that article to narrow your topic.  Also, look at  the article's subject field.

Broadening Your Topic

If you're finding too few resources, consider broadening your topic. Think of related ideas, or read some background information first.  You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:

  • Your  topic is too specific.  Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.

  •  Your  topic is too new for anything of value to have been written.  If you're researching a breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You  have not checked enough databases for information.  Find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic.  Use a thesaurus to find other
    terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field

More Suggestions:
--Use broader or more general search terms to describe your topic. For example, use "bioethics" instead of a specific issue like "stem cell research.
--Find alternative words. Search with synonyms. For example, instead of "teenagers" use "adolescents" or "teens" or "young adults."--Use fewer keywords in your search.
--Use the Boolean connector OR to broaden your search. OR means more; it will search for either term in a search statement such as private OR public.

--Try truncating your terms to include all variant endings of your keyword, such as legal* gives you legal, legalize, legalizes, legality, and legalization.