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Government Resource Guide

Diagram of the steps to choosing a research topic.

Review assignment details from your professor before you start, and at least once more while working on it. Note the following:

  • Due Date: If the deadline is within two weeks, schedule specific days for the tasks listed below; making sure to include a day between steps if possible, so you can approach your project with fresh eyes at least once:
    • Perform Research
    • Outline / Organize the Information you Researched
    • Compose the First Draft
    • Revise and Polish
  • Information Sources
    • Type of Source: Does your research assignment require you to use scholarly / academic sources?
    • Format of Sources: Are websites allowed? Database articles are the most common expectations for research projects, but your professor may also require that you use print or electronic books.
    • Number of Sources: Professors often expect you to locate and represent multiple voices for your topic in your project, not just one, often requiring a target number of sources.
  • Ask Questions
    • If you're unsure about a requirement or the goal of the assignment, ask your professor to clarify so that you (and your peers) are clear about assignment expectations and the intended learning.

If your assignment seems baffling, visit this website to learn how to decode your assignment.

Selecting a topic for a research assignment can be challenging. Your professors will have a list of topics they want you to select from, or they might want you to select your own topic related to the field or subject area for the class. Below are some helpful tips you can take when selecting a topic: 

Tip 1: Brainstorm a Topic Idea

Make sure to select a topic that you find interesting and that meets the requirements for the assignment. Consider topics related to the field or subject area of the class. If you are in doubt about your selected topic, ask your professor.

Tip 2:  Consider Connecting Concepts

After you have brainstormed your broad topic, you will need to consider connecting concepts. For example, if you selected climate change as your topic, you might look into related topics connected to your broad topic, such as, pollution, emissions, environment, fossil fuels, and temperature.

Tip 3: Narrow the Focus

You do not want your topic to be too broad or too narrow. Consider narrowing the focus of your topic. This can include looking into your topic's location, culture, demographics, time period, discipline, etc.

Tip 4:  Access Reference Resources

Conduct background research on your topic to help make your final decision. Accessing reference resources, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, will help provide background information you can use to help make your final decision in selecting a topic. 

An example of tips for selecting a research topic.

Once you have identified a potential topic for your paper, you will want to do some background research to get more info.

Doing background research can provide you with:

  • An overview of the topic
  • Definitions of terms related to your topic
  • Current arguments related to your topic
  • Potential keywords to be used to search for books, articles, etc.
  • Other articles or books that are on your topic

Below are some reference databases to get you started!


Identify keywords for your topic.

Who: What notable names, organizations, or groups of people are mentioned in the source? (Ex: Abraham Lincoln, Union Army/Confederate States Army, United Daughters of the Confederacy)

What: Are there specific events mentioned in the source? ( Ex: Civil War, Battle of Fort Sumter)

When: Are specific eras, time periods, or dates mentioned? (Ex: April 1861, mid-nineteenth century)

Where: Does the source mention geologic locations? (Ex: Charleston, South Carolina)

Why: What are the causes of the event(s)? (Ex: Slavery in America, States' Rights, Secession, Industry vs. Farming)

Keyword Brainstorming Tools