CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD TOPICS
Sometimes a specific topic is assigned by the teacher. More often, however, the general subject is assigned and you will need to limit it to a more manageable scope, or your teacher may allow you to choose from any topic with his or her approval. From this, you will then need to write a focused research question.
An ideal topic should be:
- Interesting. Ideally you will actually WANT to answer your research question. Maybe you already know something, and want to learn more. If you find you are not interested in your assigned topic, try to find some personal connection to make it more meaningful.
- Focused. If your topic is too broad for the length of your assignment, you will need to narrow it to a workable scope. It should be specific and concrete, not vague or bland. You might not know enough to focus your question until you do some background reading. This is typically the most difficult and most critical aspect to choosing a topic.
- Challenging. Make sure that the answer to your research question cannot be answered by simply reporting facts. In most cases teachers expect you to make an argument backed up with evidence. If there is only one possible answer to your question, it is probably not sufficiently challenging.
- Objective. For most research assignments, the answer to your question should be based in concrete evidence or data rather than beliefs, morals, or subjective experiences.
- Accessible. Some topics may be too recent or too technical or difficult for your level of experience, and may need to be revised accordingly.
CONDUCTING BACKGROUND RESEARCH
In order to focus your topic and write a good research question, you will need to find and read sources that give you a broad understanding of your subject area. These resources may help:
- Wikipedia (really!)
- Print and online encyclopedias
- Textbook chapters
- Books written for younger readers
- Database articles
Your goal is to learn enough about your topic to narrow it down into a focused research question with sub-questions that you want to answer. Rather than reading each potential source carefully this is a good time to SKIM and BROWSE, looking at titles, headings, subheadings, tables of contents, etc, to get a general understanding of the debates, questions, and concerns of a particular subject area.
Don’t start taking notes yet, just explore. If you need to keep track of your ideas, a K-W-H-L Chart can help.
Your teacher may check in to make sure you have gained a solid overview of the subject and have chosen a focus that will be manageable. This check may include sharing out what you have learned, a student/teacher conference, or a written statement of purpose or summary of what you have learned so far.