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Senior Inquiry Research Guide: Choose a Topic

Topic Development

This video will help you find a topic that's not too broad, not too narrow, but just right.

The 5 W's Approach

Uploaded to flickr by Duncan

Most people start out with topics that are too broad and need to work on narrowing them down. Thinking about the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why – can help you brainstorm different ways you might narrow your question and get more specific with your topic.

Notice if you are using really general or vague words when you brainstorm. For example, if you're thinking about "when," are you brainstorming "the past," "the present," or "the future"? If this is the case, it's a sure sign that you need more background information. Check out The 1-minute Approach, below, for more ideas about this.

The Advanced Search Approach

Venn diagram
Librarians love Venn diagrams!

The opposite of an advanced search is... a basic search. One box, one concept, like Google. When you enter one word in Google, you get a zillion results that answer questions like “what is…?” Basic searches define a term or repeat generally agreed-upon facts.

Advanced searches can be visually represented by two overlapping circles. Your first concept goes in one circle. Your second concept goes in the other circle. The overlapping area in the middle is where the interesting questions are - the ones that takes real research and analysis to answer.

The 1-minute Approach

Uploaded to flickr by ::: Billie / PartsnPieces :::

If you can talk about your research topic for an entire minute without stopping, then you are ready to formulate a research question. Being able to fill a whole minute with the ins and outs, and ups and downs, of your topic means that you have the background information it takes to come up with a good research question.

So... how can you already know about a topic before you've done the research?

Doing a little bit of background reading now can help you find a great research question. I recommend using Wikipedia to get a grasp on the basics of your topic. You can use the table of contents for an entry to identify some 5 W's, and follow external links and references to other info sources. Just don't use Wikipedia in your final paper, because it's not an authoritative source (anybody can change the entries!).

The Goldilocks Approach

Goldilocks illustration
Uploaded to flickr by coffeelatte

Remember the fairy tale about a little girl named Goldilocks? She finds a house in the woods and walks right in. She finds food that's too hot, too cold, and just right; chairs that are too hard, too soft, and just right... you get the picture. Then the owners of the house come home and turn out to be three bears who think that eating little girls is just right!

When you’re working on finding a topic for a research assignment, you want to find a topic that’s not too broad, not too narrow, but just right.

Goldilocks examples

Too broad, too narrow, or just right?

What happened in Iraq last year?
Way too broad! A lot happened in Iraq: US occupation, a global recession, the weather, etc...

What are the revenues of Nike compared to other footwear companies?
Too narrow - after you look up the numbers, what will you say for the rest of your paper? This question takes research to answer but it's not good for a research paper.

Is union representation good for public employees in Oregon?
Just right... or very close. You can research the effects of union representation and arrive at a conclusion about whether the effects are good or bad. If needed, you could refine this further by choosing one union, or one type of public employee to look at.


Know your topic before you search.

It is very tempting to jump in and start searching for articles right away, before you have decided on your topic. This can be a big waste of time!

Save time by knowing what you are searching for before you dive into the library's vast resources. If you are not sure what your topic is yet, try searching Wikipedia or a library database to get some background info on possible angles to expore related to your topic.