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Choosing Topics & Search Tips


  • 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.
  • Write a research question, identify your main concepts and brainstorm keywords for searching.
  • For more complex projects, consider using a search plan to identify the best sources of information and where you will find them.

Related Guide: Popular Topics for CUW Students

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

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.

Writing your Question

You’re ready to choose a possible research question to test search.

Remember, your research question should:

  • fit the requirements of the assignment (assignment length, type of argument, source type requirements)
  • Be answered with evidence from information sources (not yes/no questions)

 For example:

Q: What is the negative affect of water pollution on children’s development in the United States?


Writing A Research Question (2 Min)

Identify your Concepts

Concepts (definition): main ideas that interact in within your research question

Library search tools work best when using concepts represented by keyword or subject terms. Before you can search you must determine your main concepts for your research question. The 4 W questions often help with this: What, Where, Why, (When)

The “W” Questions

  • Who: Who are you talking about? Also, who is reading the articles you are looking at? Who is doing the research on your topic?
  • Where: Where is your topic being researched? Where is your topic relevant?  Are there specific places where your topic takes place or influences?
  • When:  When did the majority of research on your topic get published (especially important in the sciences)? Are you in a position to compare historical and contemporary information?
  • Why: Why is your topic being researched? Is it an important, urgent issue? Why do you want to do research this topic?

For example:

Q: What are the negative effects of water pollution on children’s development in the United States?

  • Who: children 
  • What: (negative) development
  • Where: United States
  • How: Water Pollution
  • Why: government policy, regulations, public safety 

Brainstorm Keywords for Searching

To search library tools you must translate your concepts into words or phrases that a computer will understand. 
All concepts must be represented in the search you create. Use OR to combine similar terms for the same concept. 

Q: What is the negative affect of water pollution on children’s development in the United States

Concept #1: Child Development
Possible Keywords: “child health” OR “child development”
(opposites): “illness” OR “disease” OR “sickness”
Concept #2: Water Pollution
Possible Keywords: “water pollution”
(opposites): “water safety”
Concept #3: United States
Possible Keywords: “United States” OR “United States of America” OR U.S.
Possible search filters to use: Location (if available)
Example Search String: “child development” “water pollution”
Advanced search with

Using Keywords in Databases (2 min)

What to Look for and Where

Sometimes it will be obvious what types of sources you need and where to find them (books & journal articles for example).
Other times it’s not so clear. If your assignment allows for a wide variety of source types,  create a search plan that will provide the best evidence. The table below summarizes the most common source types and their purpose. 

Table with different types of sources and the formats available

Questions to Answer with your Search Plan:

  • Who is an expert or would be researching this topic (Information Authority)?
    •  Possible answers: government officials, researchers, professionals (teachers, nurses, etc), first-hand witnesses
    • Where will you find it? the creators/authors of your sources   
  • What type of information do I need from these experts (Information needed)?
    • Possible answers: data, arguments, facts, background information, opinions,
    • Why it’s important? It decides the best source types to search for
  • What format/sources will this information be in (Source type)?
    • Possible answers: books, newspapers, journal articles, magazines, data sets/statistics, websites
    • Why is it important? It determines where you’ll search
  • In what search tool will I find these sources (Search Tool)?
    • Possible answers: Primo, Library database, Google Scholar, Google,
  • What concepts will be used to describe my topic (Search Terms/Keywords)?
    • hint: use academic vocabulary for finding scholarly sources
    • Why is it important? Search tools match vocabulary assigned to sources with search terms to find results 

Sample Search Plan:

Authority: government officials, researchers
Information needs: proof that water pollution caused or contributed to poor development in children.
Primary Sources: children’s health data from the US, research studies,
Secondary Sources: journal articles, magazine articles, government websites(?)
Search tools: Primo, Academic Search Complete Database, www.data.gov,
Keywords: “water pollution”, “water safety”, “United States”, “child development”, “child health”,

Where are my sources located?

Here’s a quick guide for where to located different source types available in the library. 

Library Locations different resources

Need Help Making a Plan?

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

Help Guide Suggestion: 

Using Databases
Choosing and Evaluating Sources
Primo Quick Start Guide


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