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Choosing Topics


  • Carefully review your assignment instructions and requirements before considering topics.
  • Consider whether your topic is too broad or narrow and map out ideas using a concept map.

Related Guides:
Popular Topics for CUW Students
Searching for Sources

Consider the Assignment Requirements

Sometimes choosing your topic may seem like the hardest part of a project. Your assignment will be your starting point, and the requirements will tell you a lot about what sorts of ideas will make an appropriate topic:

How long does your paper need to be?

  • A shorter paper will need a more narrowly focused idea.
  • A longer paper a will need a broader topic, or a topic with a lot of available information.

How much time do you have?
If you have several weeks, it’s likely your instructor is expecting you to do more research.

Do you need scholarly references?
Scholarly books and articles take time to write and publish, so topics focused narrowly on a recent event can be problematic. Try identifying the bigger picture a recent event represents. For example, #MeToo is about sexual harassment and sexual violence awareness. 

There are several ways to help generate ideas for a paper if reviewing the requirements of your assignment leaves you stumped.

  • Talk to your instructor. Come up with a few sample topic ideas and ask for feedback on whether they would work well for the assignment. Your instructor can offer alternatives or helpful feedback.   
  • Think about what you’re studying in the course.  Are there interesting ways in which you could expand on a subtopic of the course for this assignment?
  • Browse newspapers (in print or online) or reference materials for something that interests you. The video below explains more

Source: UC Santa Cruz University Library

Exploring Possible Topics

A little exploration in a reference tool, like a textbook or encyclopedia, can help you narrow down possibilities.

Browsing for Topic Ideas (1 min)

How to search for an encyclopedia in PRIMO:

Need some Topic suggestions?

  1. Search your textbook or syllabus for course relevant topics of interest
  2. Try this list: U-Michigan Research Topic Ideas (Website)
  3.  Try a topic starter database with provides an overview and sample sources:

Opposing Viewpoints Tutorial (3 Min)

Broader, Narrower, or Just Right Topic?

  • IS IT TOO BROAD? Sometimes broad topics can be difficult to research due to the amount of information about them.  For example, a topic that is too broad: The Environment.  This is too broad because it includes multiple subtopics.
  • IS IT TOO NARROW? Make sure that your topic is broad enough to do research on. For example, a topic that is too narrow might be:  “The water quality of the Milwaukee river between 2011-2015“; while you might find a resource or two to answer this question, you won’t find enough sources to write a complete research paper.
  • IS IT JUST RIGHT? To strike a happy medium between broad and narrow, try picking a specific angle, subtopic, or aspect of a broad topic, looking at how a narrow topic is influenced by other factors, or how it influences other factors in your field. An example might be: What are the effects of pollution on water quality in Wisconsin?
    Source: University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Testing a Topic with Searching (2 Min)

Before committing to a topic, try some sample searching to see if what’s available, and decide whether you need to make your topic broader or narrower. Primo can be a great tool for this step. 

Use Wikipedia to Narrow your Topic (2 min)

Wikipedia is a great way to identify subtopics and keywords of a topic.

Mapping your Ideas

Exploring your topic conceptually before you start searching will make finding sources easier.  

Why? → It’s easier and faster to evaluate potential sources when you know what you need.

You can also use mind mapping to track ideas, arguments, and subtopics as you test search to identify possible research questions.

Concept maps (2 Min)

TIP: Mindmup is a great free mind mapping tool online.

Need Help?

Librarians can help you choose appropriate library tools, information source types, and keywords for your search plan.

Ask a Librarian Help Form
Research Help Desk Hours

Next Steps: 

Searching for Sources
Using Databases
Choosing and Evaluating Sources
Primo Quick Start Guide


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