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Research Help: Topic Help

A help guide on some key activities involved in research processes.

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Developing a good research question can sometimes be the most difficult part of the research process. If you are struggling, follow the links below.

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No ideas?

The best research is driven by curiosity, because curiosity makes you ask questions. So a good approach to finding a research topic is to locate your own curiosity among the possible topic ideas, whether assigned or imagined by you.

What if I can't think of any good research ideas?

If you are stumped and can think of nothing to research, try one of these strategies:

  • Get a clean sheet of paper and draw 3 columns. (Or download a formatted Word file here.) Choose 3 of these categories and write one at the top of each column: places, people, things, technologies, controversies, history, jobs, habits, hobbies. Once you have the categories chosen, start listing whatever comes to mind about things you either know about or want to know more about. Focus on one category until you get stuck. Then go to another one. Keep going for at least 10-15 minutes. This is brainstorming, so write anything at all!
  • Some other ways to get topic ideas: as you browse websites think about what draws your attention; browse Wikipedia or a news or magazine website; think about articles or books you've read recently; a topic you've read or heard about in another class; chat with a friend or classmate to generate ideas; browse a Library database such as Opposing Viewpoints or browse through today's New York Times.

 

Generating and refining questions

Is it a good research question?

How can you know if a question you come up with is a good research question? Here are some questions to ask yourself about your question! :)

  • Can the question potentially be answered through research?
  • Is the question INTERESTING to you? Are you fascinated by it?
  • Is the question something you've wondered about before?
  • Is the questions RELEVANT to your life?
  • Is the question too big or too small? It's too big if you find a number of books have already been written trying to answer your question. It's too small if you find only small bits of information that address your question. If it's too small or too big, don't ditch it, just adjust it!
  • Does your question raise more questions? For example, the question "When was the Spanish Civil War?" is not a good research question because it has a single specific answer that doesn't have an obvious follow-up. The question "Why does Afghaistan seem to have many female social activists?" does not have a single discrete answer, and you can already imagine follow-ups such as "Have there always been lots of social activists in Afghanistan? Are there also many male social activists? Is there something going on culturally or politically that is making these women come forward, especially when it puts their lives in danger to do so?"

How can I narrow down a question that's too big?

What if you have a good question but it's too big for the size of your research paper assignment? These are some quick ways you can narrow down your question to something more appropriate:

  • People: is there a certain group of people you could focus your question on? For example: women, children, boys, teenagers...
  • Trends or Controversies: what new developments have there been recently that your question could focus in on? Opposing Viewpoints or a Newsstand search could help you with this.
  • Places: how would your question be different if you focused on a specific place, such as a country, a city (perhaps a local issue) or a building or business.
  • Relationship: What if you included a second subject in your question. Instead of "what are recent developments in school reform?" you could ask "what are recent developments in school reform that address the failings of No Child Left Behind?"

How can I make a topic idea into a research question?

Sometimes it's difficult getting to a question when all you have is a topic idea. Here are some great tips on question-making:

  • Ask why: Why might [BLANK] be true or not be true?
  • Test a hypothesis: Is [BLANK] evidence enough to prove my hypothesis? Is the assumption I'm making/others are making about [BLANK] true? Is it true that [BLANK]?
  • Relationship: What is the relationship between [BLANK] and [BLANK]? Does [BLANK] cause [BLANK]? Is [BLANK] similar to [BLANK]?