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Research Toolkit: Choosing a Topic

Research toolkit to help you learn how to find the information you need.

The Basics

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. If you are unsure, ask your professor for feedback.
  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you. Curiosity is an excellent motivator!
  • Choose a topic that others have written about in order to find enough resources.
  • Read through your course readings and notes for ideas.

Browse Reference Books & Databases for Ideas

If you're stuck choosing a topic, maybe you need a little inspiration. Browsing through lists of topics and databases of topics that other people have written about can help you get unstuck.

  • Gale Virtual Reference Library Browse this database of encyclopedias and other reference sources for topic inspiration and background information.

  • Opposing Viewpoints Use this database to browse for topics with multiple perspectives.  Each entry includes an overview of the issues, and links to resources that represent different points of view.
  • CQ Researcher This database also allows you to browse for topics and contains in-depth reports on current and controversial issues.

Focusing the Topic

Researchers usually start with a broad topic and narrow it down to a more focused topic. Below are some strategies for narrowing a broad topic.

Strategy 1: Ask Questions

Think about questions you have about your topic. For example, if you were researching people's habits buying locally grown food, you could ask:

  • What specific food items are people more likely to buy local and why?
  • What are the economic aspects of buying local? Is it cheaper?
  • Do people in all socio-economic strata have access  to local food?

Strategy 2: Concept Map

Create a concept map of your topic that consists of all the possible angles and aspects of your topic. You can use a pen and paper to sketch out a map, or use an online tool.

Concept mapping tools: Pen and paper, Google DrawCreately



Strategy 3: The 4 Ws

Consider the 4 Ws - who, what, when, and where. 

  • Who is the specific person/group to which you would like to limit your research?
  • What specific aspect of the broad topic idea is interesting to you? What would you like to know more about? Or, what problem needs to be resolved?
  • To which specific geographic area or region would you like to limit your research?
  • On what time period would you like your research focused?


Try It: 4 Ws Worksheet

Strategy 4: Find Background Info

Sometimes knowing more about your topic is helpful. Do some background reading to help you discover a great research question. 

Here are some sources you might consider for background reading:

  • Use Gale Virtual Reference Library to find expert overviews or encyclopedia articles.
  • Search the Library's Catalog to find books.
  • Look at Wikipedia to collect background information. Note: Wikipedia is not an authoritative source to cite because the authors' expertise is not always clear. Nevertheless, Wikipedia can be useful to gain an initial understanding of your topic.