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3.5: Finding Your Topic and Research Question

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    Getting Started with your Research

    As you already learned, research is a messy process. You need to be open to change. However, there are some basic steps to go through as you start your process. Keep in mind that you may not always go through these steps in the same order, or you may go back and repeat some of them more than once!

    • Choosing a topic
    • Narrowing the topic
    • Writing a research questions on that topic
    • Refining your research question

    When Lily got her research paper assignment, she knew that if she was going to spend several weeks researching a paper, she wanted it to be something that was interesting to her. Lily had recently read an article about a Black woman professor who faced discrimination, and it reminded her of something that she noticed about her college classes. Almost all of her college teachers were white, even though she and her classmates were not.

    At this point, Lily did not know exactly what she wanted to say about this topic, but she was interested in it. She wondered how her college experience would be different if she had more teachers with the same background as her. When she shared her ideas with classmates, they were also curious and interested.

    Now that Lily had a topic that interested her, she wrote a few different research questions:

    • Are there many faculty of color (Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American) at colleges?
    • Why are there few teachers and professors who are minorities?
    • Why is it important to have faculty of color?
    • What can colleges do to improve this situation?
    • Who is responsible for helping faculty of color?
    • What is the experience of people of color who teach at colleges?

    With just a little research, she found that faculty of color are underrepresented. This means that the percentage of college professors who are not white is lower than their percentage of the population overall. She realized that she had already answered her first research question,so it would not be a good topic for her essay. However, she could use that information as background for one of her other questions.

    After talking about the topic with her librarian, Lily decided to focus in on these questions:

    Why is it important to have more minority faculty in colleges? How can we improve this situation?

    Choosing a topic

    Sometimes instructors will assign a general topic related to the class, such as immigration or the food system. In English classes, you might get an assignment to write an argumentative research paper on a topic of your choice. In either situation, you will need to spend some time choosing a more specific topic.

    The best research topics are ones that you personally care about and want to spend more time reading and thinking about. Remember that research is a conversation; you want to choose a topic that gives you personally something new to contribute.

    Take some time to think carefully about your topic. Sometimes students jump into researching the first idea they think of, or something that they have heard is a “good research topic.” However, if you are researching something that you do not really care about, or do not personally have any knowledge of, it can be challenging to stay interested and also say something new to your readers.

    Ask yourself key questions

    • What do I know about?
    • What have I studied?
    • What jobs have I had?
    • What other experiences have I had where I learned a lot about a topic (parenting, having a friend with a disability, traveling, political activism, art, volunteering…)?
    • What makes me mad?
    • What do I think is unfair?
    • What articles have I shared on social media because I thought they were important?
    • If I could change a rule/policy/law/practice/attitude, what would it be?
    • What nonfiction topic do I like to read about in any language?

    Fill in the blanks

    • Although many people think X, I think Y.
    • I would really like to change X.
    • More countries should do X like it is done in [another place].
    • X is more important than most people realize.

    Finding your topic

    Let's try these techniques.

    Apply this!

    Choose one of these techniques: asking questions or filling in the blanks. Set a timer for 10 minutes and try to come up with as many ideas as you can. After ten minutes, circle the ideas that are most interesting to you.

    Narrowing a topic

    Once you choose a topic, you will want to narrow it down. You want your topic to be narrow enough so that you can actually say something unique about this topic (but still broad enough that you can find published information). If you choose an overly broad topic, you will spend a lot of time researching and writing about the general topic without actually saying something unique.

    Here is an example of a topic that is too broad: "The effects of teachers on students."

    If you started to research this, you would quickly find that there are so many different kinds of teachers, students, and effects that it would be hard to compare your research to others' research or to support a strong point. Figure 3.5.1 shows the process of narrowing a topic as concentric circles:

    • Biggest circle: all possible topics
    • Next smaller: assigned topic
    • Next smaller: topic narrowed by initial exploration
    • Smallest inside circle: topic narrowed to research question(s)
    Concentric circles to show narrowing a research topic
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Visualize narrowing a topic as starting with all possible topics and choosing narrower and narrower subsets until you have a specific enough topic to form a research question. (CC BY Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries)

    Let’s imagine that you have the topic “the effects of teachers on students” and want to narrow it down.


    Ask yourself why you are interested in this topic. If you can identify why this relates to you, you will be able to see how to narrow it. Freewriting is a good way to get some ideas out. Set a timer for 5 minutes and freewrite about the topic of “the effects of teachers on students.” You can write in English or another langauge. When you run out of ideas, look back at your writing. What would interest you about this topic and why?

    Write questions

    Look at each part of a topic and write questions about each part. For example, for the topic “the effects of teachers on students”, here are some questions that you could ask:

    • What kinds of effects am I interested in: academic, personal, or motivational?
    • What kinds of students am I interested in? This could include school level, age, personality, race, abilities, gender, country, background, etc.
    • What kind of teachers? Am I interested in learning about the effects of teachers based on their training, background, personality, etc.?

    If you are having trouble thinking of questions to ask yourself, ask a friend or classmate what questions they would ask. Sometimes other people can add a new perspective that you had not considered.

    Do an Internet search

    Do an internet search. Sometimes you are interested in a topic but do not have a clear idea of what you want to say. In that case, you can look online to see what others have already written about this topic and get some ideas for narrowing it down that you had not thought about before.

    Apply this!

    Do an Internet search for “effects of students on teachers” and spend 5 minutes looking at the top 20 or 30 results. What do you find?

    Here are some of the topics you might see:

    • Whether students with more experienced elementary school teachers learn to read faster
    • How teachers affect students’ self-esteem
    • How teachers affect social relationships among classmates
    • How the level of stress a teacher feels affects their students
    • How children benefit from having a Black or Latino teacher in elementary school

    Searching can help you get ideas even if you end up changing your topic somewhat. The sources you find may not be appropriate for your final research paper, but that’s okay! Right now you are just getting ideas.

    Research questions

    Writing a research question

    Once you have a narrow enough topic, write a research question. A research question is a question that will guide you as you do your research and help you stay focused. It will also help you write your thesis statement, since a thesis statement will generally be the answer to your research question.

    A good research question is something that you do not already know the answer to. In addition, it is something that cannot be answered with a simple fact.

    It is useful to start your research question in one of these ways:

    • Why
    • How
    • What are the most significant [causes/effects/problems/reasons/solutions] to….

    Your question might have two parts: for example, first showing why something is a problem, then showing how to solve it.

    Evaluating your research question

    After you write one or more possible questions, evaluate them using this checklist:

    • Is your research question narrow and focused?
    • Is it broad enough that you can find enough information?
    • Is it something that you do not already know the answer to?
    • Is it something that cannot be answered with a simple fact? Try!

    Here are some possible research questions that Lily wrote as she prepared her research paper. Which one do you think is the strongest? Why?

    • How many teachers and professors in the US are minorities?
    • Does Laney College have many faculty of color?
    • How does having a teacher of color affect students?
    • Why is it important to have faculty of color in colleges and what can colleges do to increase the number of faculty of color?

    Next steps

    Once you have your research question, you are ready to start your research! Remember, as you get more information you may change your ideas and decide to change your question.

    Licenses and Attributions

    Authored by Elizabeth Wadell, Laney College. License: CC BY NC.

    "Ask yourself key questions" and "Fill in the blanks" by Gabriel Winer, Berkeley City College. License: CC BY NC.

    This page titled 3.5: Finding Your Topic and Research Question is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gabriel Winer & Elizabeth Wadell (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .

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