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Developing your Topic: Developing Your Topic


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These "step" pages have been adapted from that of Johnson & Wales University Library (Denver Campus) as well as from the Research & Learning Services Department of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  Stafford Library has received permission to use and adapt these pages.

Developing your Topic

If you are new to the research process, or need a refresher, the library can help!  Check out our tutorials and please don't hesitate to Contact Us.  This page provides information and tips concerning developing your topic, such as understanding your assignment, generating search terms, finding background information, and revising your topic.   Often you will complete these steps in the order provided, however, there may be times when you will need to return to a previous step or complete multiple steps simultaneously.

Understand the Assignment


First things first! Before selecting a topic or starting your research, make sure you understand your assignment and its requirements. 

  • Have you been assigned a topic or can you pick your own?
  • How many pages/words do you need to write?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources such as scholarly articles?
  • When is the assignment due?
  • Is currency of information important? (e.g. is the topic a current event or historical in nature?)

When in doubt, consult with your instructor.

Develop your Topic


Developing a good research topic can sometimes be the most difficult part of the research process.

  • Scan your textbook for broad topic ideas.
  • Write down what you already know or don't know about the topic.
  • Using the information you wrote down, develop questions you'd like to answer when doing your research.

Generate Search Terms


Before searching for information in a print or online resource, it is helpful to generate search terms related to your topic. Key terminology can be easily be found by scanning:

  • Your initial research questions.
  • Encyclopedia and other articles used when conducting background research.
  • Bibliographies found at the end of books and articles.
  • Use a thesaurus to identify synonyms.
  • Brainstorm keywords with a librarian, your instructor, or a friend.


Find Background Information


Once you have identified some key terminology, the next step is to find background information on your topic. Background research serves many purposes:

  • If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it provides a good overview of the subject matter.
  • It helps you to identify important facts related to your topic -- terminology, dates, events, history, and names or organizations.
  • It can help you to refine your topic.
  • Background research might lead you to bibliographies that you can use to find additional sources of information on your topic.
  • Background information can be found in textbooks, dictionaries, general encyclopedias, subject-specific encyclopedias, article databases, and the Internet.  Wikipedia can be useful, but only as a first step. Make sure you verify information you find on Wikipedia with authoritative sources.

Is your Topic too Narrow?

If you are not finding enough information, your topic may be too narrow. Consider broadening it by:

  • Exploring related issues.
  • Comparing or contrasting the topic with another topic.
  • Expanding the time period covered, the population considered, or the geographic area discussed.
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so recent -- it may not be covered in books and journal articles yet.
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so popular -- it may be covered in popular magazines and tabloids only.
  • Example: Does cartoon viewing cause violent behaviors in children under the age of five? To make it broader we could write, What are the negative effects of television viewing on children and adolescents?

Is your Topic too Broad?

If you are finding too much information, your topic may be too broad. Consider narrowing it by:

  • Time period -- 1960's, bronze age, etc.
  • Geographic location -- Denver, New York, Australia, etc.
  • Population -- age, race, gender, nationality or other group
  • Smaller piece of the topic:
    • Genre -- jazz (music)
    • Event -- Battle of the Bulge (WWII)
    • Aspect -- government regulations (pollution)
    • Discipline or Subject -- music (in early childhood education)
  • Example: Global warming. To make it broader we could write, How will climate change impact sea levels and the coastal United States?