One of the principal challenges of topic selection is to define the scope of the topic so that it is matched to the requirements of the assignment. In most cases, topics are too broad rather than too narrow. Research papers of less than 15 pages require very focused topics.
- By focusing the topic you set boundaries on the information you need, and can therefore locate it more efficiently.
- You will not be overwhelmed by the totality of available information and can devote attention to the evaluation of pertinent information.
- If you have a narrow topic, you will be more likely to discover and use specific details which can enliven your paper, because you will be free of the requirement to summarize huge amounts of information.
How to Focus
Think about the questions that you have about your broad area of interest. Look through your books, handouts, and notes. Consider any information related to the assignment. Try to identify a broad focus for preliminary investigation. It may also be helpful to make an appointment with your teacher to discuss topic ideas.
In order to start generating questions, try one of these ideas:
- Freewrite for between five and fifteen minutes on your broad topic. Consider specifically what you want to find out about the topic. Try to develop a list of questions.
- If you are a graphic-thinker, this brainstorming could take the form of a "mind-map" or cluster diagram. The software program Inspiration can be very helpful at this stage. You can get a free trial of this program.
- You might find it useful to organize your ideas in a KWL table. In this approach, you build a three-column table and record what you already know about the topic and the questions that you have. In the third column, you can record the answers to the questions as you come across them in your overview reading.
- Look up the broad topic in the electronic version of the Encyclopedia Britannica or a specialty encyclopedia devoted to your content area. (Ask a Librarian for help in identifying the best specialty encyclopedia.) Select a result, and then click on the "index entry" on the left column. The index will give you multiple subheadings that may suggest questions. It will also be an excellent source of a working vocabulary of search terms for your topic. Write these terms down. They will come in very handy when you begin searching electronic resources.
- Do a Subject search in Academic Onefile and then click on subdivisions. The results will be organized by subtopics. Review this list to identify topics about which you have questions.
- Use the Visual Search function in Academic Search EliteThe results will be displayed by sub-topics.
Reflecting on a Focused Topic
Once you have narrowed your topic, make sure that you can answer in the affirmative to all the following questions before continuing with the research:
- Am I really interested in this subject?
- Can I be objective about this subject?
- Is this subject appropriate and manageable for the type and length of product that I will be producing?
- Is it probable that there will be enough information available?