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Research Skills Tutorial: 1.1 Developing a Research Question

Intended to help you develop the skills required to complete research assignments

Browse These Sources to Get Topic Ideas

Try browsing these sources to get topic ideas: 
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Joe Haigh
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Test Your Knowledge!

Is the following topic too broad or too narrow: Organic Farming
Broad: 515 votes (78.51%)
Narrow: 141 votes (21.49%)
Total Votes: 656

Choosing a topic

For your assignment, you may be given a broad topic. In some courses, you will be asked to come up with your own topic.

Start brainstorming a topic:

  • Read course readings, slides, and lecture notes and see if anything stood out as particularly interesting

  • Do some pre-research reading. See if you can find additional information on your potential topic using the internet, books, or articles.

Choosing a topic can be the hardest part of a research assignment!
  • Think about what issues matter to you. Look at the news. Are there any current events you are interested in incorporating into your research paper?

  • Is there an issue you've discussed in class you'd like to learn more about? 

  • Do you have strong opinions on a controversy or event that would be worth exploring more? 

Test your topic

The first topic you choose might not be the one you write about for your paper. That's OK! Before you get locked into a topic, make sure to spend a bit of time testing it. This means searching for sources on your topic to make sure enough has been written about it. To learn more, watch the video below by NCSU Libraries.

See the Searching with Keywords and Finding Articles pages of this guide for tips on finding sources as you test out your topic. 

Narrowing your topic

Narrowing a Topic

Once you have selected a topic to focus on or have been given a topic, you will need to focus your topic.

For a short paper of 1000-2500 words, you will need to choose a narrow topic. 

You topic is too broad if:

  • You find dozens of books on it

  • It's difficult to write a thesis statement

  • You can't squeeze everything you want to discuss into the word limit

Narrowing a Topic: Who, What, Where, When

For example, perhaps your broad topic is the effects of racial profiling. Brainstorm: 

  • Who: Black men, First Nations, Muslims 

  • What effects or aspect of your topic are you interested in? Ex: employment, self-esteem, education, incarceration

  • Where: United States? Canada? India? 

  • When: Present time, historical perspective, 1990s? 

By selecting from the above, we could narrow our topic of "racial profiling" to a more specific research question. For example: 

  • What are the effects racial profiling has on the employment of black men in the United States? 

  • What are the effects racial profiling has on the incarceration rates of First Nations individuals in Canada? 

Next, ask Why or How, rather than What

Interesting research questions ask why or how, rather than what. We can easily turn our questions into why or how questions. For example:

  • How does racial profiling effect the employment opportunities of black men in the United States?

  • Why is racial profiling related to higher incarceration rates among First Nations individuals in Canada?