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Research Tips- How Do I...?: Refine My Topic or Thesis

- The purpose of this module is to help you understand basic tools to expand your college-level research skills. Each "How Do I" section is designed to give you practical information and ways of thinking about information that will allow you to:

Refining your Topic or Thesis

Why did you choose to be in the course your writing a paper for?

There must be something that stands out to you as a point of interest. 

- This should be your topic. 

Now, how do you refine it to fit the scope of the assignment?


In order to get your research project started on the right track you need to:

  • Read the assignment, again.
    • Your professor always goes over the assignment in class, now you need to read it again.  
    • Highlight the ask - what is your professor wanting?
    • If you are confused about the assignment, ask your professor to explain the exact part or parts that confuse you.
      • Others may be confused too.
  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements.  
    • You are in interested in X, how do you make X relate to the assignment?
  • Choose a topic that others have written about.
    • This will ensure that you can find resources for your paper.
Too Broad:

Beef Industry


Industry Standards of Labeling Organic Beef in the US

Too Narrow:

History of Organic Beef Industry in Boise, ID


Impact of Industry Standards Regarding Labeling of Beef in the US

Topic Strategies

  • Not sure of a topic? Read through your class notes or course materials.
  • Brainstorm using a word chart.
    • If your professor wants you to write about "online privacy" - write down synonymous words and related topics such as: identity theft, internet privacy, surveillance, or data protection.
    • Have no shame - use a thesaurus if you're really stuck.  
  • When you think of your initial topic find a few resources that you can read over.
    • Look at dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, or guides 
      • This is meant to be exploratory.
      • Use these quick searches to understand your topic better.
  • This Background Research will help you learn more about the topic.
    • Find keywords associated with the topic.
    • Refine how to approach the topic to work with the assignment.
  • Look for points of disagreement among scholars, gaps in research, or real world needs of this topic. 
    • How does it relate to your life or world perspective?
  • Ask yourself, "what questions are unresolved on this topic? How can I add value to this conversation?"
  • After your initial Background Research find 2-3 articles or book chapters on the subject.
    • This will help you test your topic for its relevance to the assignment.
      • From these sources you can also find additional helpful sources.
Narrowing your Topic
Ask questions in order to understand more about your chosen topic.
Here are a few Example research questions or focus statements:
  • Plastic bottles negatively impact our ecosystem.
  • What is the environmental impact of plastic water bottles?
Think about the 4 Ws
Topic: Plastic Water bottles
  • Who:
    • Who is involved?
    • Whom does it affect?
  • What:
    • What are the facts?
    • What is the problem or issue?
    • What other concepts are associated with the topic?
    • What should be done about the issue?
  • Where:
    • Where did it begin?
    • Where does it fall on the moral spectrum
    • Where is this happening?
  • How:
    • How did it happen?
    • How serious is the problem?
    • How or can it be resolved?