Selecting a Topic

Selecting a Topic

The first step is to make sure you understand the assignment: its purpose, format, types of sources to use, length, when it’s due, and so on. In some cases your professor assigns the topic. In other cases, you will have the freedom to select your own topic that fits within the scope of the course. If this is the case, consider topics that you already know something about, that you would like to learn more about, or that you feel strongly about. You may get ideas from course lectures and discussions, the syllabus, the textbook and other readings, or discussions with other students. Techniques such as brainstorming may help in generating ideas. Library databases like Academic OneFile arrange articles by Subjects and Subdivisions; skimming though these Subdivisions may help in narrowing your focus. Other library databases like CQ Researcher contain reports on a wide range of topics. Browsing through the subject arrangement of these reports may provide ideas.

The length of the paper and the number of available sources will help determine whether a topic is too narrow or too broad. For example, if your professor says you must use 10 sources and the library has 50 books and hundreds of articles on a topic you are considering, it might be too broad. To narrow the topic, consider focusing on some specific time period, geographic area, individual, group, event, or other angle. On the other hand, if you find no books and only a few journal articles in preliminary search, your topic might be too narrow. To broaden the topic, consider dropping one of its aspects.  For example, if your initial topic regards the effect of class size on the academic achievement of children in fourth grade, consider changing it to the effect of class size on academic achievement in general, or on children in any elementary school grade.