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Research Toolkit: Choosing a Topic

Tools, techniques, and resources to help you find the information you need.

Watch - Choosing a Topic

Meet Mona. Mona was just assigned an argumentative research paper for her composition class. The paper is due in three weeks and Mona doesn't know where to begin. Don't panic Mona!

The first step in choosing a research topic is to look at your assignment requirements. What kind of paper are you writing? Has your instructor provided a list of acceptable topics? Or even a list of topics you aren't allowed to use? How long does the paper need to be? How many sources do you need? Do you need specific types of sources?

The next step is to examine your interests. What are you curious about? What is affecting your life right now? Research is easier when you can explore a topic that matters to you. Mona is passionate about tacos. She decides to explore this interest and see if she can connect it to a topic that would meet the requirements of her research paper.

The third step to choosing a research topic is to narrow the focus of your topic. Mona does this by searching broadly to see how she can narrow her interest, tacos, into a research topic. She uses the 5 Ws strategy to create questions to help her explore the topic and create a mind map. The 5 Ws are asking questions such as: who, what, when, where, and why. Using her mind map, Mona decides to narrow her topic by exploring what makes a truly authentic taco.

She doesn't know all of the details about her topic or exactly what she's going to say yet, but that's okay. Now she can focus on her research to find more specific sources on her topic that will inform her and help her plan the structure of her paper.


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. A helpful way to do this is to think of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. For example, if your topic is "tacos," your questions might be:

  • Who is affected by tacos in the U.S.?
  • Where are taco ingredients sourced from?
  • When did the taco first appear on the scene?
  • What is a truly authentic taco?
  • Why do people love tacos so much?
  • How have tacos changed over time?

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 like Google Jamboard.


Concept map for vegetarianism. The word vegerarianism is circled in the middle with sub-topics branching off of it.


Strategy 3: 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.