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Picking a Research Topic

Picking a Research Topic

Author: Emma Allen

After this lesson, the student should be able to pick a research topic, narrow the focus to a manageable subject, and do background reading on the subject to learn about different points to be addressed in the paper.

This is one of the hardest parts of a research topic. This technique will help you narrow choices down on many different things in life, not just papers.

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Background Knowledge and Terms


By this lesson, a student should have been exposed to the following:

  • Brainstorming
  • Venn Diagrams/Clustering
  • Outlines
  • Freewriting

New Terms

Research Paper - Purdue University's Owl Writing Lab, defines a research paper as "the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition." It is usually the "big" paper of a class and can involve a tangent of the information studied in that class or an independent topic.  Usually primary and secondary sources are used to support the topic.

Background reading - General knowledge reading about a broad subject in an effort to narrow the focus to a specific topic to be researched in-depth.


What interests you?

The ideal research paper would be one that you already had an interest in and would like to learn more about.  Start broadly and use brainstorming to narrow your focus.  Not sure what interests you? Do some freewriting to help you think.  Set a time limit of five minutes, use the jump start "What interests me?" or "What do I want to learn more about?" to help you get started.  Do as many freewrites as you need until you find a topic that you'd enjoy. 


If you already have a broad topic or your teacher has assigned one, move on to the background reading section.

What can Background Reading do for me?

1.         Immerses you in the subject learn more about it, find out the different concerns surrounding the topic and different perspectives.  Look for overviews only, nothing in-depth.


2.        Reveals the enormity of the subject What is there to research? What isn’t there to research? How long will it take you to wade through it to find what you need?


3.         Gives you direction take note of the arguments made and the sides people are on. Look for perspectives and secondary arguments as well.


4.        Learn to talk the talk every field has jargon that is used. Finding out what it is now and defining it will save you a lot of time during research.


5.         No need to reinvent the wheelfrequently people have already done research on the same topic.  Can you use theirs? Is there a source frequently mentioned on the same subject?


Picking a Topic

Once you have done your free-writing and background reading on a broad topic, use this method to narrow your top 3-5 topics into manageable research papers.