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Information Literacy Toolkit: Developing a Topic

Choosing a topic can be one of the hardest stages of a research project! In this section, you'll find a series of steps towards developing your topic. Feel free to pick and choose from the list below. You can also do them in any order that you'd like. 

After reviewing your assignment prompt, think broadly about which areas you would like to explore. When you have a broad area or two in mind, begin brainstorming some of the possible terms that are related to those areas and write them down. They don’t need to be complete thoughts, just some words that come up when you think about your research question.

Example: For my English paper, I choose a topic related to the prison system in the United States. I brainstormed the following words: ''prisons", "prison system", "incarceration", 'United States", "America"

When you are choosing a research topic, surveying a number of different kinds of resources can a good way of getting some basic background knowledge on your topic. Try a few different searches (possibly using the terms that you brainstormed in the previous exercise) and see what comes up. From there, you may be able to narrow down a topic.

Example: When I searched for "prison system"  OR prisons AND "United States" OR America in Google’s search box, I came across a number of information resources (news, media, nonprofit organizations, videos, books, etc.) related to the history of the prison system in America, as well as information on those trying to reform it. By surveying a few articles and topic overviews here, I can begin to narrow down my focus.

This can be especially helpful if you are wondering if there is any scholarly information on your topic. In addition to perusing the Internet for some basic background information on your areas of interest, the library can offer you the following resources:

  • Newspapers, to provide ideas for topics based on current events or trends.
  • Reference books such as encyclopedias, which can provide information on a particular subject.
  • Subject-specific magazines and journals with insights into what is currently being researched and written about in that particular field.
  • Access to e-resources such as Points of View Reference Center, which can give you a well-rounded perspective on your area of interest.

ExampleI used Points of View Reference Center's topic overviews to build some background knowledge on the Private Prison Industry.

Since your thesis statement is essentially an answer to a question, it can be helpful to frame your topic ideas as questions. Jot a few down to see if you can turn your ideas into a research question. Your questions should be open-ended to allow for multiple interpretations and in-depth exploration of your topic.

Example: How does the private prison industry contribute to the issue of mass incarceration in the United States? How does the private prison industry influence criminal sentences for low level drug offenders?

Created by UNC Libraries.