Chapter 3: Choosing a Topic & Developing a Research Question

In this chapter you will learn how to select a topic and create a focused research question using background information.

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify a topic that is appropriate for the research assignment.
  • Gather information to refine and narrow the topic.
  • Develop a research question.

ACRL Frame Alignment:

For some assignments, your instructor may allow you to choose your own topic to research. It can be tempting to pick a topic right away and put all your focus on finding sources for it. However, taking time to gather background information and explore a few potential topics can ensure that you choose the best topic for the assignment. You don’t want to end up with:

  • a topic that is too broad or too narrow
  • a topic that doesn’t have enough sources
  • a topic that you aren’t really interested in

Broad and Narrow Topics1

After you’ve done some background reading, you should have a better idea of what you want to explore further. Your topic should be focused enough that you’re not overwhelmed when trying to find sources to support it, but flexible enough that it can be modified depending on the information you find as you continue to research. Here are some questions to ask as you zero in on a focused topic and research question:

  • Is there enough published information on this topic? Based on your background research, has this topic been studied, discussed, and written about extensively?  In other words, will you be able to find enough sources for your paper?
  • Is this topic too broad ? If your topic sounds something like the “History of Hip Hop”, it’s too broad.  You will never be able to thoroughly cover all of the history and issues related to Hip Hop in a 3 page paper.  It is a huge topic with so many complexities that it would be impossible to fully explain and address everything important in a few pages.
  • Is this topic too narrow? On the other hand, if your topic is too narrow you may not find enough information to fill 3 pages. This is a great reason to do background research and stay open to adjusting your topic as you learn more about it.

Watch the Picking Your Topic is Research video from NC State University Libraries to learn the importance of topic selection in the research process.

Think of a few potential topics and gather background information for each one.

  • Read about each topic without worrying about exactly what you want to say in your essay. Instead, pay attention to issues that interest you.
  • Look at multiple articles to get information from varied sources.
  • Take note of important concepts, keywords, people, or events.
  • Notice what details are sticking in your mind and interest you the most; those are elements you will want to research further and may be important parts of your essay.


  1. Broad v. Narrow Topics. Adapted from the Los Rios Community College Library Information Literacy Tutorial and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.