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Information Literacy Modules: Choosing Your Topic

Begin with Your Assignment

As a student, the need to do research usually begins with an assignment for a class. The instructions for the assignment will tell you What, How, and When your instructor expects the project to be executed.


What is the assignment and how involved will it be?

  • Is it a paper, a presentation, another kind of project, or a combination of any of these?
  • If it is a paper, how many pages will it need to be, and is there a minimum amount of sources required?
  • If it is a presentation (i.e. PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, etc.), how long should it last?
  • Are you given your research topic, or will you be picking your own?

Once your instructor has presented the assignment and explained its scope, you will have a better idea of how many resources to begin looking for. For longer and more involved projects, more resources will normally be required. For shorter essays and presentations, most likely only a few sources will be required.


How will you be conducting your research?

  • Maybe you will be required to only use book information.
  • Maybe you will be required to only use journal articles.
  • Maybe you will be required to include an interview you conduct.
  • Maybe you will be allowed to draw from whatever types of sources you deem necessary to finish the project.

These types of conditions will be presented in the assignment. The types of sources required will indicate how and where to search. Finding information in the research process requires what are known as finding tools. What finding tools are will be explored in the next module, Selecting Finding Tools.


When will the assignment be due? This aspect will give you a timeframe to work with in your research process. A short essay due in two weeks will require less sources than a ten-page paper you are given a semester to complete. Also, the types of sources and access to those sources will be influenced by the amount of time given for an assignment. How time constraints will effect a project’s research process will be considered throughout these modules, so don’t worry if this seems like too brief of an explanation.

It is worth mentioning that even though a minimum amount of sources maybe required for an assignment, you certainly don’t have to stop there. Unless your instructor puts a maximum on how many sources you can have, it is always best to allow the research to guide how many sources you will need. There is no magic number that is the best amount. With these points in mind, take a few minutes to watch this video about the research process.

Hopefully this video helps to illustrate the points already made, and setup our next area of interest, identifying a topic.

Identifying a Topic

As mentioned in the last section, your assignment may require that you use a topic provided by your instructor, select from a list of approved topics, or explore an idea of your own. Regardless of the situation, how you search for a given topic will begin with an initial question. In constructing the question you need to consider:

  • Is it sufficiently broad enough to allow you to write a long paper on the topic?

or conversely,

  • Is it narrow enough to fit into a shorter essay?

So when considering the topic question, think about the scope of the assignment. If the question seems like it might be too narrow to allow you to write enough, or even find enough sources, to fulfill the length of the project, adjust the wording of the question to broaden the topic. Remember the video and the process the student had to use to adjust how she was approaching her topic.  The opposite is true for a topic question that is too broad. Research is a process and it can take time to shape your initial question into a question that will work well for your assignment. Next we will look at ways to revise a topic.

But you might be wondering, in papers where you need to come up with your own topic, where might you go to find ideas? You may have a good idea already and your instructor may agree and approve it, but in the case that it is not approved or you are stumped on ways to think of what to research, there are various places that may prove to be useful.

Social Media

There are many conversations and hot topics that float through social media that might provide a jumping off point for research.

Newspapers and Magazines

Issues that affect our society will be explored in these publications, and can many times make excellent potential topics.

Library Databases

There are several databases provided by the library that explore topics and present subjects which make excellent topics for research projects. What are databases? We will look at databases much closer in the Selecting Finding Tools section.

Two that stand out are

Opposing Viewpoints in Context

America’s News (this database has a section called Find a Topic that provides a wide array of subjects to choose from)

Understanding Revision

Okay, so you have decided on a topic you think will work for your assignment. Now you need to figure out if the topic question is actually going to work for your project. What do you use to do that? Two areas to work with are Background Information and the Types of Sources you will be working with. What are these? We will describe those areas in our next 2 segments, but for now let’s consider what we are looking for when working with them.

How much information are you able to find on your topic? In your initial searching, what is coming back? Are you finding a large amount of materials without trying to hard? That might be an indication your topic is too broad and needs to be focused into a subtopic. Are you unable to find much of anything on your topic? This might be an indication that the focus is too narrow, or an indication you need to reword your initial search term(s). Try thinking about a more general way to describe your topic, and start searching for the broader term(s).

The next point to consider in your initial search results is are you finding materials related to the topic you had in mind? Maybe you retrieved a large amount of results on your first try, but most of the materials seem to be off topic, or not what you were expecting. Try working with different search terms and alternative ways of describing your topic. The need to modify an initial search query is normal.

If you are having a hard time either finding information on what you intend to work on, or figuring out how to narrow a topic that is too broad, you can always  consult your instructor or a librarian from the college. They can help you to find an appropriate focus for your project.

In the next segment, we will take a look at Background Information.

<< Developing a Research Strategy                                                            Background Information >>