Choose & Refine Your Topic

The order of the steps you go through to choose a topic may vary, but some things are fundamental to the process.

Analyze Your Assignment

  • Has the instructor assigned a topic? How specific or general is it?
  • What type of result are you expected to produce: a research paper, a speech or presentation, an essay or opinion piece, a literature review or annotated bibliography, etc.?
  • Are there any specific conditions on types of materials to include or exclude, e.g. scholarly journals, current news, primary sources, internet sources, law cases, etc.?
  • What are the limits on your time and effort? When is the paper due? How many sources will you need and how soon will you need them?

Evaluate What You Already Know

  • What issues have you been reading and talking about in class? Do any of these things interest you enough to warrant further investigation?
  • What issues haven’t been covered in the course, but seem related and are of interest to you.

Look for Background Information

  • Ask a librarian to help you locate an overview of the general topic in an encyclopedia, handbook, or other source.
  • Write down distinctive concepts and unique keywords used to describe the topic. Note names of people, places, dates, and significant events. Some of these will turn into important search terms when you begin your literature search.
  • Select the issues that seem the most significant and interesting.

Ask Questions

  • State the questions you have about these issues. Add to your list of keywords.
  • Talk to your professor or members of your class to refine your list of questions.
  • Can you limit your topic by time period or geographic region? Is there a specific approach to the topic that seems most interesting, e.g. historical, psychological, public policy, biographical?
  • Ask a librarian to recommend the types of materials and the specific search tools most likely to produce results in your research.