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Research 101: Selecting & Developing a Topic

Information on the research process.

Generating Topic Ideas

You can do some general searching in any database to get topic ideas. You may find the databases below helpful for generating and refining ideas.

Books can provide an overview of a topic. Look at the headings and chapters for ideas on how to narrow a broad topic.

To find books: Enter search terms in Quick Search field on the library's home page. Once you have a results list, select the Books limiter (under Source Type).

Peruse the newspapers and current periodicals in Briggs Library or look at news sites online for topic ideas.

Use Web sites to look for topic ideas.

Topics in Your Major

You may want to pick a topic related to your major. If you are unfamiliar with concerns and issues in your field of study, you can look to professional organizations for information.  Professional organizations usually host Web sites and may also publish press releases, trade journals, or scholarly publications.

To identify professional organizations:

  • Ask your advisor for recommendations.
  • Consult Briggs Library research guides in the subject area. They often list professional organizations.
  • Do a Web search.
  • Ask a librarian.

Write a Research Question

Think about your topic and what you want to know about it. Compose a question to guide you in your research process. An example of a research question: How do cell phones affect communication?

This question guides your research. You may change or refine your research question as you learn more about your topic. Our example question could be refined or narrowed to How do cell phones affect in-person communication?

Your assignment may require you to take a stance or make a claim based on your research. For example: Because research has shown that cell phones increase distractions and interruptions which negatively affect in-depth in-person communications individuals should routinely turn off their phones while interacting with others .

Use Mapping to Develop a Topic

UCLA Library

Developing a Topic

One approach to developing a topic is to start with a broad subject that interests you and brainstorm some more specific topics under this broad category. For example:


  • internet businesses
  • cybersecurity
  • cell phones
  • online education
  • cyberbullying
  • robotics
  • self-driving cars
  • 3D printing

The bulleted topics are narrower, but will still need to be refined for an undergraduate research project. This is a good point to begin your research. See how much information is available on a topic and how authors approach different aspects of the topic. You’ll want to develop a research question or questions to help guide you as you search for information. Example research questions for researching cell phones follow.

Cell Phones

  • Does texting affect writing skills?
  • Can teachers use cell phones to engage students in the classroom?  If so, how?
  • How do cell phones function as a status symbol?
  • How do cell phones affect social interactions?

Your topic and topic question will evolve as you continue with your research.

Are you having trouble finding information on your topic?

Try different searches, keeping in mind that you'll need to consult multiple sources to research your topic.

Still no luck? Consider broadening your topic.

Ideas for broadening a topic:

  • Cover a broader time span
  • Cover a broader geographic area
  • Include a larger population
  • Bring in related topics or perspectives
  • Examine a larger problem


Narrow topic: Do SDSU students taking writing classes online make less progress than SDSU students taking in-person classes?

To address this question you’d likely need to conduct original research.  To find published sources you could try broadening the population and broadening the type of learning addressed.

  • Do college students taking writing classes online make less progress than students taking in-person classes?
  • Do college students taking classes online make less academic progress than students taking in-person classes?

Narrow Topic: How are men portrayed in beer commercials shown during NFL games?

Broader to topics to try:

  • How are men portrayed in commercials for alcohol?
  • How are men portrayed in commercials?
  • Are men portrayed as simplistic on television?

Mapping is another approach to generating ideas and to exploring ways to narrow or broaden a topic. You can start mapping out concepts by asking the questions who, what, when, where, and why.

You can use online programs to create concept maps which illustrate the relationships.

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