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Research Process

Topic Selection

Selecting a topic can sometimes be overwhelming and may even induce a little bit of panic if you're on a time crunch. But, we can fix that. Oftentimes you'll have broad parameters to work within so take advantage of that. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What topics in this course are most relevant to my overall major or minor?
  • Which sections of this class have I enjoyed the most?
  • Which sections sparked additional questions, connections, or ideas? 
  • What is something we didn't talk about as much in class as I would have hoped?

What you will most likely have first is a subject, not a topic. You will need to do background research on your subject to identify ways you can get more specific and turn your subject into a topic. 

Background Research using CREDO

Credo is a good starting point for research, featuring information from subject encyclopedias and dictionaries. Remember, it's okay to change your topic or change your focus as you're determining what exactly you want to research. After all, that's why we do general background searches--to have a better base understanding of our topic.  While you are researching your idea in Credo, take note of important ideas or issues that are mentioned. You can also use the topic web, which is similar to a concept map that you can use to formulate your research question.

Topic Scope

Too Broad

If you have too many matches, it can be hard to tell what you're looking at and even harder to tell if something is what you need. You will know your topic is too broad if...

  • you are having difficulty finding similar ideas in the results.
  • there are a lot of subtopics within the concept.
  • there is a book with that title.

Example that is too broad: Saltwater Fish

Too Narrow

It can be easy to get so specific that your topic either doesn't exist (yet) or your words show up in your results but not in a useful way.

  • you get no (or only a few) results in the databases. 
  • what you are looking at is either not at all what you were looking for or seems to be talked about only within a different context.
  • you can't seem to find anything to support your ideas.

An example that is too narrow: The impact of invasive lionfish on coral reef fish population in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Just Right

Look at what you can make either more specific or less specific in order to land on a topic that is just right. You'll know your topic is just right if...

  • you readily find information that matches your ideas.
  • you can see the connection between the resource and your interest.
  • you feel like you'll be able to write enough without stretching it or editing it down too much.

An example of a topic that is just right: The impact of invasive lionfish on coral reef fish population in the Atlantic.

Research Questions

A research question is a question that you hope to find an answer to during your research. Topics are typically general in concept, such as "The impact of invasive lionfish on coral reef fish population in the Atlantic", but it's important to ask yourself what you want to know about them. This question should be clear, focused, and not be something that can logically be answered with a yes or no. Following is an example of a research question in need of improvement and how to make it better:

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: Does the lionfish impact the coral reef fish population in the Atlantic?

The answer is yes, which means we need to improve this topic. An easy way is to start thinking about who, what, when, where, why, and how as it relates to your topic. You can also think about to what extent something is related to help it become a more open-ended question. In our example, we need to be more specific.

IMPROVED: How much of an impact has the lionfish had on the coral reef fish population, and what is being done to lessen the impact?

Once you have a research question, you should write it down somewhere! While your research question is likely to change throughout the research process, it's a good idea to have it handy as you start working.