Doing Research: Selecting a Topic (page 2)
One of the most important steps of a research assignment is selecting a topic. You want a topic that is of interest to you, matches the requirements of the assignment, and is relevant to your studies. You also want to be sure that you can find information on your topic of choice. The following article focuses on the first step of starting a research assignment: selecting a topic.
Understanding the Assignment
When you’re given a research assignment, the instructor usually provides an assignment sheet or other resource that details the requirements of the assignment. For example, she may have you complete a research assignment from your textbook, or he may create his own assignment sheet. The assignment sheet is important because it tells you what the instructor expects as well as other information about putting together the research project (such as formatting information like fonts, margins, and so on). When you know what’s expected of you, you are more likely to match those requirements and expectations when doing the assignment. This effort translates to a better grade.
Instead of skimming over the assignment sheet and not paying too much attention to it until after the research assignment is complete and you’re just double-checking that you got it right, spend time early reading and thinking about the goals and parts of the assignment. For major research projects, be sure you know the following before you begin:
- Type of assignment: Instructors often assign research papers as the type of research assignment, but you may also be challenged to create other types of research projects, including presentations, oral reports, posters, videos, group games, and more. A lot of times, instructors require a written component (such as a paper) and an oral component (such as a brief oral report to your class). Know exactly what you need to create to meet the requirements of the assignment.
- Subject of assignment: Usually, an assignment is based on something you’re studying in class. You may take, for example, a more detailed look at a historical event. Or you may focus on a particular country or a time period in history. While the subject isn’t the same as your topic, the subject does provide the basic arena for the assignment and is a starting point for coming up with a topic for the assignment.
- Length of assignment: Your instructor should give you some idea of the expected length of the assignment. For reports, this may be a certain number of pages or words. For oral presentations, this may be a certain number of minutes to make the presentation. The length is important because it’s a criterion you use to select the topic. For example, if the goal is to write a 4- to 6-page paper, the topic of World War II is too big. Women’s role in that war, though, is a more focused the topic for a paper of that length.
- Expected resources: Your instructor will probably provide some ideas about where you can find information to complete the assignment. She may even require you to use a particular source, such as a recent news article or an Internet site. The expected resources can tell you the type of information your instructor expects to see in the research assignment.
- Elements: Your instructor should also specify any special elements the report should include. For example, your instructor may ask that you include an outline of your paper. Or you may need to show graphs or charts of your experiments for a science report. As another example, your instructor may want you to include illustrations or relevant photographs to enhance your report. In addition to the body of the research assignment, know what other items the instructor expects in your final report. You can then look for these elements when you’re doing your research.
- Format: The instructor should also provide you with detailed instructions on how the research assignment should look. For papers, this may include the typeface, font size, margins, title page, and other formatting elements such as headers and footers. For presentations, you may need to create a slide presentation (using programs such as PowerPoint), create a movie using a video camera, provide note cards for your oral report, and so on. The format should tell you exactly what your research assignment should look like when you turn it in or present it.
- Citations: When you include someone else’s words or ideas, always cite the source. You can use different methods for citations. You may include footnotes, endnotes (which are like footnotes but they appear at the end of the document on a separate page), or in-text citations (which appear in parenthesis, following the cited material). You need to not only know how to cite the information but also understand in what format you should list the works you cited (called a Works Cited page or Bibliography). The “Citing Sources” section later in this chapter covers the topic of citations in more detail.
When you know the expectations of the assignment, you’re ready to select your topic.
Getting Ideas for Topics
Research assignments often require a lot of time and may count for a significant part of your grade. Therefore, you should start by selecting a topic that is of interest to you and relevant to the assignment. Doing so improves your chances of getting a better grade.
To come up with possible topics, you can use many sources. Rather than selecting the first topic that comes to mind, consider making a list of potential topics, evaluating each one, and then making a decision.
For potential research assignment topics, consider these possible sources or methods for generation topics:
- Ask your instructor. Your instructor may provide some sample topics. You may want to choose one of these, or you might be able to use these as a way to brainstorm additional ideas. If your instructor doesn’t specifically provide any possible topics, you can ask for some, especially if you’re having a difficult time coming up with a topic. As another alternative, sometimes the instructor provides all of the topics, and you must select from the list.
- Review your textbook and other class materials. Look through your textbook or other course materials, because they may include sample research assignment topics or projects. You can select one of the ones mentioned, or you can use the recommendations as a starting point to brainstorm new ideas.
- Brainstorm ideas. To brainstorm a possible topic, start with a word or phrase that describes the general subject (World War II, for example, or biology). With the subject in mind, list any ideas that you can think of. Don’t worry about whether the topic is perfect and don’t judge your brainstormed list of entries as you create it. Just list as many ideas as you can think of. Later, you can weed out the topics that don’t work. Sometimes, a weird idea leads to a new, appropriate idea, so note all your ideas without editing.
- To brainstorm, ask yourself several questions. What do you know about the subject? What have you read about the subject? Has the subject been in the news recently? If so, why? What would you like to learn about the subject? What questions do you have about the subject? What’s related to this subject that’s of interest to you?
- Check out printed materials. Look through your school or local library and see what books or articles are available on the subject. Think about what books, articles, or other information you have read about the general subject. For example, you may have read a novel or seen a TV show about da Vinci’s paintings that aroused questions that you can answer in a research paper.
- Use the Internet. In addition to printed materials, you can use the Internet to search for general information, which can then help you brainstorm specific ideas. For example, you may be interested in Pearl Harbor (as part of your World War II studies). Search for Pearl Harbor and see what type of information is available. From that information, you may be able to come up with a relevant, focused topic, such as why Pearl Harbor was vulnerable, how the bombing affected the U.S. involvement or the history of the state. To get other ideas, you may also search generically for examples of different projects, such as “science fair projects” and review any matching examples.
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