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Information Literacy: 01. Develop a Topic

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Management.

Develop a Topic Video

Developing a Topic
Learn to develop an appropriate topic for a research paper by considering goals, approaches, topic scope and helpful resources.  

(CLIP video, length 6:39 minutes)

Overview of Developing a Research Topic


To begin, write down some ideas that you would like to learn more about.  When you have a broad area or two in mind, brainstorm all of the possible associations that pop into your head related to those ideas. For example, the topic of Polar Bears might bring “ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, environmental icon, population, and melting” to mind. Tip: Choose a topic that interests you and would interest others. You'll do better research when the topic is of interest to you.


Use an encyclopedia, browse the Internet, or read your textbook to do some background research on some of your topic ideas.  You might begin to note important words, phrases and concepts these resources mention, and use them to find additional information. You might consider researching a certain era or period of time (e.g. World War II), geographic location (e.g. China), or groups (e.g. Cantonese).


After you have some good topic ideas, it can be helpful to format your ideas into a question that can be answered.  Think of your topic as a question, and your thesis as the answer to that question.  Avoid asking closed questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no; rather ask open-ended questions instead that explores in-depth.  This keeps your research fluid so you can adapt your question to any unforeseen research bumps. 


In-depth research is basically looking for information that supports your topic question.  The information may come from articles, books, or other sources.  Remember that your research is a dynamic process, so don't be afraid to discover new things.  Select a topic that has enough resources to support your thesis. You will encounter problems if you don't have enough supporting resources.


Your thesis is the major claim that you will make in your paper, and you'll use all of the sources from your research to support that claim. If you think of your topic as a question, think of your thesis as the answer to that question.


  • Step 1, Brainstorm topic ideas: “Afghanistan, history, women”
  • Step 2, Background research: Use Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Step 3, Develop a topic question: “How have gender roles changed in Afghanistan throughout history?”
  • Step 4, In-depth research: Use library catalog and databases to find related book and articles.
  • Step 5, Develop a thesis: "The Taliban severely limited the personal freedoms of Afghani women after taking control of the country in 1996.

Broaden and Narrow Topics

It's also important to consider the scope of your topic. If it is too broad, it might be tough to find information that is relevant to you. If your topic is too narrow, it might be tough to find any information at all. Generally, it is good to start out with a slightly broad topic that you can further develop and narrow as you find information.


  • Too broad: "History or women"
  • Better: "History of female gender roles in Afghanistan during the 20th century"
  • Too narrow: "Current child-rearing practices of women in Kabul, Afghanistan”
  • Better: “How gender roles in Afghanistan impact the lives of women”


  • Make sure your paper meets all assignment requirements, so read your assignment closely. 
  • Your class readings will often list some good sources and suggestions to being your research.
  • Books and encyclopedias are great places to get topic ideas.
  • Ask how someone else might view a topic in order to provide a more balanced perspective.
  • Web sites may provide a broad idea about your topic, but may not be authoritative.
  • Use the library's databases like CQ Researcher to really help develop your topic research.



You might find that resources provided by your library can be really helpful, and you can access many of these resources online through your library's website. 

Don't forget that our librarians are excellent resources!