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Information Literacy: 01. Develop a Topic

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Management, the Pacific Northwest College of Arts, and the School of Computing and Informations Sciences.

How to Develop a Strong Research Question

Learn how to develop a strong research question for a research paper by considering six important criteria.

(Scribbr video, length 4:18 minutes)

Concept Map

Understanding Your Assignment

Make sure you understand your assignment and its requirements.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I been assigned a topic? Can I pick my own topic? 
  • How many pages or words do I need to write? How long should my presentation be?
  • Do I need to include specific types of sources? For example, newspapers, scholarly articles, books, etc.
  • When is the assignment due? How much time do I have to conduct research?

Process for Developing a Topic

Before you develop your research topic or question, you'll need to do some background research.

Getting Started

  • Choose a topic that interests you. 
  • Review class readings, handouts, notes, textbook for ideas.
  • Browse encyclopedias and credible websites.
  • Browse library databases on current events.
  • Discuss potential topics with your instructor, a librarian, or classmate.
  • Consider researching a certain era or period of time, geographic location, or groups.

Feeling stuck? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was there a news story that interested you?
  • What aspect of your class would you like to learn more about?
  • What issue or interest would you like to know more about?

Terminology Matters

Before you can begin searching for information, you need to develop keywords related to your topic. The keywords you develop and use to conduct research will influence your search results. Keywords and phrases can be found by examining:

  • Encyclopedias and scholarly articles
  • Bibliographies found at the end of articles and books
  • Consulting a thesaurus to identify synonyms
  • Talking with a librarian, your instructor, or classmate.

This example shows the keywords in the following sentence:

Concept Map

You can also use a concept map to visually organize thoughts and illustrate relationships between concepts and ideas.

Once you have identified keywords, you are ready to collect background information on your topic. As you research, note important words, phrases, and concepts that sources mention and use them to locate additional information.

Background information can be found in:

  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • databases like CQ Researcher
  • browsing the Internet

Why bother with background research?

Background research serves many purposes, including:

  • It provides an overview of the subject matter, which might be new to you.
  • It assists with identifying relevant information for your topic, including dates, events, and relevant terminology.
  • It will lead you to additional sources of information.
  • It will aid in narrowing your topic.

Write it down

Once you have a topic idea, it is helpful to write everything you know or don't know about it down. From there, use that information to formulate questions. Avoid asking closed questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead, ask open-ended questions that prompt you to explore different aspects of the topic.

Try filling in the blanks in the following sentence:

  • I want to research ___(what/who)___
  • and ___(what/who)___
  • in ___(where)___
  • during ___(when)___
  • because ___(why)___.

It is important to consider the scope of your topic. If it is too broad, it might be difficult to find relevant information. If your topic is too narrow, it might be tough to find any information at all. Generally, it is a good strategy 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”

Remember: the shorter your final paper, the narrower your topic needs to be.

Willamette University

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