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How to Help Students Choose a Research Topic:

Students, when confronted with the task of choosing a topic for a research project, often don’t know where to start. They may not know enough about the subject matter to pick a viable topic. They may feel anxious about taking risks or unconfident about their own interests. Or, they may just want to play it safe, picking something as innocuous and bland as possible. All too often, the topic they choose to research is too general. For example, when asked to write about the intersection of religion and the Civil Rights Movement, a student may choose to research “Martin Luther King, Jr.” without any additional focus. In these cases, instructors often tell students, “You’ll need to narrow that down!” This kicks off a whole new round of confusion. What does it mean to “narrow down” a topic? How can faculty mentors help students choose research topics that are “meaningful, measurable, and manageable” (Lattimer 2015)? 

Getting Started:

Several strategies exist to help students generate research topics:

  • Instructors can guide students by encouraging them to brainstorm a list of several potential topics and then narrow the list to the strongest topics. 
  • Instructors can provide partial topics that yet make room for student interests. For example, an instructor could ask students to research and write a biography of a person important to the subject under study but leave it up to the student to pick the individual to research. 
  • Instructors can encourage students to expand a short paper that they wrote into a longer research project. 
  • Instructors and students can generate a collection of research questions to help frame potential research topics. 

Strategies for Helping Students Narrow Down a Research Topic:

If students’ initial ideas for research topics are too broad, instructors should help them understand what it means to “narrow” a research idea. When instructors say “narrow,” they often mean that the topic needs to respond to research questions that are important and relevant in the respective discipline. Two questions can be useful:

  • Does my topic help address a problem that readers in my discipline care about?
  • Is my topic significant to disciplinary conversations in a way that I can articulate?

Students will likely need guidance to orient them to these disciplinary conversations. In this case, instructors can send them to the library to see if their topic is relevant to the field, or instructors can provide students with specific readings to help them understand where their topic fits into the discipline. 

It can sometimes be helpful to give students a template for a good research topic. Have the students fill in the blanks: 

“I am trying to learn about/working on/studying _______________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how ______________ in order to help my reader understand how/why/whether ____________________” (Booth et al. 2016). 

For example, a student in a religious studies class about the religious history of Latin America, applied the template this way: “I am trying to learn about women’s leadership in Santería in Cuba because I want to find out how gender roles have been influenced by Marxism in order to help my reader understand how religion, gender, and politics intersect in Cuba. Another student completing a psychology honor’s thesis came up with this: “I am working on in-group face recognition because I want to find out how age group bias may influence face recognition in order to help my reader understand whether age and in-group face recognition are linked.”

The following PowerPoint expands on these ideas and provides suggestions for further reading. 

Reference List:

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Jacobs, Heidi L. M. “Research Questions and the Research Question: What Are We Teaching When Teach Research?” In Successful Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Research, edited by Marta Mestrovic Deyrup and Beth Bloom, 1–12. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013.

Lattimer, Heather. Surviving and Thriving with Teacher Action Research: Reflections and Advice from the Field. New York: Peter Lang, 2015.

Lipson, Charles. How to Write a BA Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First Ideas to Your Finished Paper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore. “Considering Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research in Context.” In Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, edited by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore, 1–18. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 2018.

Walkington, Helen, Eric E. Hall, Jenny Olin Shanahan, Elizabeth Ackley, and Kearsley Stewart. “Striving for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research: The Challenges and Approaches to 10 Salient Practices.” In Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, edited by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore, 105–30. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 2018.