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Research Topics: How to Select & Develop: Refining a Research Topic


Research is a dynamic process. Be prepared to modify or refine your topic. This is usually the sign of thoughtful and well-done research. Usually researchers start out with a broad topic before narrowing it down. These strategies can help with that process.

Brainstorm Concepts

Think of words or concepts that relate to that topic. For example, if your topic is "polar bears," associated words might include: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, and environmental icon.

Make a Concept Map

Create a visual map your topic that shows different aspects of the topic. Think about questions related to your topic. Consider the who, what, where, when, and why (the 5 W's).

For example, when researching the local food culture, you might consider:

  • Why do people buy local?
  • What specific food items are people more likely to buy local and why?
  • What are the economic aspects of buying local? Is it cheaper?
  • Do people in all socio-economic strata have access to local food?

This short video explains how to make a concept map:

Source: Douglas College Library

You can make a concept map by hand or digitally. Below is a link to a free online concept mapping tool:

Consider Your Approach or Angle

Your research could, for example, use a historical angle (focusing on a particular time period); a geographical angle (focusing on a particular part of the world); or a sociological angle (focusing on a particular group of people). The angle you choose will depend largely on the nature of your research question and often on the class or the academic discipline in which you are working.

Conduct Background Research

Finding background information on your topic can also help you to refine your topic. Background research serves many purposes.

  • If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it provides a good overview of the subject matter.
  • It helps you to identify important facts related to your topic: terminology, dates, events, history, and names or organizations.
  • It can help you to refine your topic.
  • It might lead you to bibliographies that you can use to find additional sources of information on your topic.

Reference sources like the ones listed below can help you find an angle on your topic and identify an interesting research question. If you are focusing on a particular academic discipline, you might do background reading in subject-specific encyclopedias  and reference sources. Background information can also be found in:

  • textbooks
  • dictionaries
  • general encyclopedias
  • subject-specific encyclopedias  
  • article databases

These sources are often listed in our Library Research Guides

Here are some resources you may find helpful in finding a strong topic:

Conduct Exploratory In-Depth Research

Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you look for relevant sources, such as scholarly articles and books, refine your topic based on what you find. While examining sources, consider how others discuss the topic. How might the sources inform or challenge your approach to your research question?



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