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Library Research Strategies

Defining your topic and crafting your research question

Students studying

Penn State. (1980, Jan. 1). Students Studying. Retrieved from  Used under the Creative Commons License.

Deciding on a topic is one of the simplest, yet can be one of the toughest, parts of conducting research. The resources on this guide can help you brainstorm different topic ideas, and consider their appeal both to yourself and to your audience.  From here, they can help you refine your topic into a research question, which is what you ultimately want to develop.

Deciding upon a research topic / crafting a research question

The following tools are digital aids to help with the brainstorming process.  You can either use them or just a good old fashioned pencil and paper to map out ideas (including nebulous, half formed ideas) on your topic.

Based upon your brainstorming, ask yourself the following questions about a potential topic to make sure you are selecting a topic that will keep both yourself and your audience engaged. If you can answer yes to these questions, you're ready to refine the topic into a question.

  • Am I interested in this topic?
  • Will I enjoy researching it?
  • From a disciplinary perspective, will my audience be interested in this topic?

The audience consideration is of interest in that you are a student scholar active in a specific field of study who will create a work of scholarship for others in the field to read or hear presented.  To that end, it is worth considering what other researchers in the field have focused on in the past, and considering whether your idea aligns with previous considerations, or whether it is a departure from those considerations (and if it is a departure, is that an issue or not).

Adapted from the University of Hawaii.

Reference sources -- dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. -- are often a useful way of getting background information on a topic.  For example, if you were taking a 20th Century U.S. history course, one topic your instructor might begin discussing is the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  If you were unfamiliar with this document, you could use some of our reference sources find some background information about it.

These Reference databases can help with general information:

The reference databases above are just a few of the most broad reference sources available to you.  The WSU University Libraries offers many more, which you can find on the following separate guide.

Developing a research question (or multiple research questions, if doing so is useful) is typically considered the goal at which you want your getting started process to arrive.  A research question is different from a topic -- in short:

A research topic is a subject that interests you. A research question is something specific you want to know about your topic.

Research has few universal, set rules, but often has general broadly agreed-upon guidelines.  One such guideline is that you want to develop one or more research questions as an outcome of the thinking you put into getting started.

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