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TCORE 133: Ways of Knowing - Velaquez: Selecting a Topic


Sometimes instructors will assign a specific topic, but usually they will ask you to select a topic that interests you. When you choose your own topic, you will need to:

  • Brainstorm for ideas
  • Read general background information
  • Focus in on a topic
  • Make a list of keywords
  • Be flexible
  • Research and read more about your topic
  • Formulate a thesis statement or research question

Selecting a good topic is not easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting yet broad enough to find adequate information. Before you select your topic, make sure you know what your final research project should look like. Each instructor or class will have somewhat different requirements and purposes for research.

Use the steps below to help you carefully define and select your research topic.

Step 1: Brainstorm for ideas

Choose a topic that interests you.

Even if a topic has been assigned, you may be able to choose a particular aspect of the topic that interests you personally. Use the following questions to help you generate topic ideas:

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Did you read a newspaper article, or see a TV broadcast recently that piqued your curiosity or made you angry or anxious?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest you'd like to know more about?
  • Do you have a research paper due in a class this semester? 
  • Is there an aspect of one of your courses you are interested in learning more about?

Step 2: Read general background information

Read a general encyclopedia article on the top two or three topics you are considering.

Reading a broad summary enables you to get an overview of the topic and see how your idea relates to broader, narrower, and related issues. It also provides a great source for finding words commonly used to describe the topic.  Write these keywords down; they may be very useful to your later research.

Use article databases to scan current magazine, journal, or newspaper articles on the topic.

Use Web search engines such as Google to find websites on the topic.

Step 3: Focus in on a topic

Keep it manageable.

A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or too narrow.  Common ways to narrow a broad topic like "the environment" are: 

  • by geographic region
    • Example: What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States?
  • by culture
    • Example: How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?
  • by time frame  
    • Example: What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?
  • by discipline  
    • Example: How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?
  • by population group  
    • Example: What are the effects of air pollution on seniors citizens?

Remember that a topic will be more difficult to research if it is too:

  • locally confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in local newspapers, if at all!
    • Example: What sources of pollution affect the Ogden valley water supply? 
  • recent  - Be aware if a topic is very recent, books and journal articles will not be available, but newspaper and magazine articles will.  Websites may or may not be available.
    • Example: Events that happened yesterday or last week

If you have any uncertainties about the focus of your topic, discuss it with your instructor or a librarian. 

Step 4: Make a list of keywords

Keep track of the words that are used to describe your topic. 

  • Look for words that best describe your topic.
  • Look for descriptive words in the encyclopedia articles and other reading you do while selecting your topic.
  • Find synonyms and broader and narrower terms for each keyword you find in order to expand your search capabilities.
  • Keep a list of these words to use as keywords later as you search in catalogs and other online databases.

Identify the Database’s Search Terms (Subject Headings)

Many databases apply subject headings to the materials indexed. These are standardized terms that identify the main subject area(s) covered by the research. Also known as “controlled vocabulary,” the subject headings may be found in the databases’ Thesaurus or the records of your search results.

Some databases include a list of Subject or Thesaurus terms on the result list.  Checking a box next to the term will add it to your search and change your results.

EBSCO databases ProQuest databases
Click on Show More to see
additional terms.
Click on Subject to open the list.
Click on More options to see
additional terms and check boxes.

Step 5: Be flexible

It is common to modify your topic during the research process.

You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process.  When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable. 

Step 6: Research and read more about your topic

Use the keywords you have gathered to research in the library catalog, article databases and internet search engines. Find more information to help answer your research question.

You will need to do some research and reading before you select your final topic. Can you find enough supporting information to answer your research question?

Step 7: Formulate a thesis statement or research question

The research goal and purpose can be expressed in either of two ways: as a thesis statement or as a research question.

Thesis Statement

  • Write your topic as a thesis statement. Your thesis statement will be one or two sentences that state precisely what is to be answered, proven, or what you will inform your readers about your topic.
  • The development of a thesis assumes there is sufficient evidence to support the thesis statement.
    • For example, a thesis statement could be: Music benefits both society and the individual in a number of practical ways.

Research Question

You will often begin with a couple of words, develop a more focused interest in an aspect of something relating to these words, then begin to have questions about the topic.

For example:

  • Ideas = music effects
  • Research Question = In what ways does music affect people?
  • Focused Research Question = What positive effects does music have on young children?