Selecting & Refining a Research Topic

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  • 0:03 Brainstorm
  • 1:49 Preliminary Research
  • 2:54 Analyze Research
  • 3:52 Plan for the Project
  • 4:45 Thesis
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Ever struggle to choose a topic for a research project? This lesson gives a simple five-step process to not only choosing a topic but refining it to an appropriate focus.


Throughout your academic career, you will no doubt have to complete various projects or papers requiring research. With regard to education and schooling, research can be defined as an investigation or study of a particular topic in order to draw some sort of conclusion.

Imagine you are given this assignment:

  • Create a research project to inform the class about a serious issue currently affecting countries around the world.

This is such a broad assignment, where do you even begin? Use these five easy steps to select and refine a research topic:

The first step is to brainstorm, which means to produce thoughts or ideas in a spontaneous matter. Using the example prompt about choosing a serious issue that's affecting countries around the world, list all the ideas you can think of that are issues in today's society. This list should be very general and include everything that comes to your mind - no idea is a stupid idea.

Some sample ideas for the prompt may include pollution, civil rights, global warming, poverty, and terrorism. Once you have made your list, you need to start narrowing it down. Research projects take time, so cross off any topics that don't really interest you. You need a topic you will enjoy learning about so you can maintain a strong focus for a few weeks.

You should also rule out any ideas that don't necessarily address the prompt. For example, a topic like the newly released football video game does not qualify as a serious issue affecting all countries. This idea, however interesting it might be to you, would be one to cross off your list. Keep narrowing down your choices until you have about three or four solid options.

Preliminary Research

The next step is to do some preliminary research, which is the preparatory research that comes before you start recording information about your research project. At this point, you should have three or four reasonable research ideas, so use preliminary research to narrow your choices. Browse the Internet and look up details about your shortlist of ideas. Which one has the most information available? Which one is more controversial or prompts diverse opinions? Are any of these issues already universally understood or agreed upon?

Use these guiding questions, and any more you can think of, to narrow down your list to one main idea with plenty of information available. In addition, if your assignment is a persuasive piece, be sure there is enough information to support your opinion on the matter. On the other hand, if the project is more informational, make sure your topic has plenty of reliable sources to support various views on the issue. Based on your preliminary research, choose one topic to be the focus of your project.

Analyze Research

Let's say at this point you have chosen terrorism as your topic. You can now begin the project, right? Wrong! You still need to refine this topic so that you have a clear focus for your whole project. The next step is to analyze the preliminary research you have found, which means to examine the details, information, and evidence. Ask yourself some pointed questions about your topic and supporting research:

  • Do you believe everything you've found out about it?
  • Are there any ideas about it that people believe but aren't true?
  • Is there some information that might be biased? How can you tell?

Use these questions to refine and focus your topic. For example, after analyzing your preliminary research on terrorism, you might find that, contrary to many people's beliefs, the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts around the world has decreased in the past ten years. Thus, you can refine your topic to the recent decrease in fatalities caused by terrorism.

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