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Research Without Pain: 1c. Focus your Topic

Research can be fun if you follow these simple steps.

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Is Your Topic Too Narrow?

If you are not finding enough information, your topic may be too narrow. Consider broadening it by:

  • Exploring related issues
  • Comparing or contrasting the topic with another topic
  • Expanding the:
    • time period covered
    • population considered
    • geographic area discussed
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so recent -- it may not be covered in books and journal articles yet
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so popular -- it may be covered in popular magazines and tabloids only

Is Your Topic Too Broad?

If you are finding too much information, your topic may be too broad. Consider narrowing it by:

  • Time period -- 1960's, bronze age, etc.
  • Geographic location -- Denver, New York, Australia, etc.
  • Population -- age, race, gender, nationality or other group
  • Smaller piece of the topic:

    • Genre -- jazz (music)
    • Event -- Battle of the Bulge (WWII)
    • Aspect -- government regulations (pollution)
    • Discipline or Subject -- music (in early childhood education)

Focus Your Topic

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.


Why Focus?‚Äč

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. If you are a graphic-thinker, this brainstorming could take the form of a "mind-map" or cluster diagram.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Use the Visual Search function in Academic Search Elite. The 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?


Broad Topic: Global warming

Narrower Topic: How will climate change impact sea levels and the coastal United States?


Narrow Topic: Does cartoon viewing cause violent behaviors in children under the age of five?

Broader Topic:  What are the negative effects of television viewing on children and adolescents?