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RWS Library Instruction Review

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Developing your research topic

Developing a research question

This is an excerpt from SDSU Library's Quick Research Tips

Sometimes when you’re starting out on an assignment that requires research, you have a very general idea of a topic. You may be thinking about bees or surfing or the right to vote. These are all broad topics that have within them many narrower topics that you can explore for insights or to develop an argument. You can think of a broad topic as a house that’s been packed up into many smaller boxes in preparation for moving. Each moving box might contain a room, a single shelf of books, all the pots or all the Legos. Broken down into more manageable chunks, a topic becomes easier to research. 

As simple as that sounds, in reality it takes a bit of effort and exploration to focus the research topic. There are many ways to do this and it is often an iterative process, meaning it may need to be tested and repeated multiple times. 

Here a few examples of topic development

  • Keyword development

    • What are synonyms for the terms you already have?

    • Does a library database use specific terms for that idea?

  • Idea mapping (sometimes called mind mapping): creating a visual layout of your idea

    • Start with your main/broad topic in the center of a page, like the hub at the center of a wheel.

    • What other concepts or sub-concepts make up that idea? These are the spokes that radiate out from the hub.

    • This is your concept of the idea so draw it however works best for you

    • USF blog post with example mind maps

  • Explore a subject research guide

    • Research Guides are put together by subject specialist librarians and point to helpful resources in your area of study

    • You can sometimes get an idea for a topic or project by exploring the content of those resources

When choosing a topic for your project, try to choose something that you are interested in. You don’t have to feel passionate about a topic, curious will do. In fact, if you’re passionate about a topic you may already know a lot about it. Either way, you’ll want something that keeps you motivated to search for knowledge, questions, answers and more about that topic.

Let’s try some topic development.

Broad topic: Voting

  • What about voting?

    • Who can vote?

    • How it works

    • What are issues or controversies?

  • I’m interested in cases where people have not been allowed to vote...

    • Voting suppression

      • Racist voting policies

    • Women and voting

  • I’m also interested in how voting has changed with new technologies

    • Voting and technology

    • Voting and ‘tech’

What other aspects of voting, the vote, elections, etc. come to mind? Try sketching out your own mind map and see where it leads you.

Want more research and topic help? See the Videos and Tutorials tab in the menu for more info on developing your research question and research strategies.