Goldilocks and 'Just Right' Research Questions
Finding the Right Question:
Often, you will have the opportunity to develop your own research question or topic to write about. This freedom to choose a topic is an excellent opportunity for you to explore issues that interest you and topics in which you are curious. However, the old bit of wisdom that there are 'no bad questions', doesn't apply with research questions and topics. Often an ill-formed paper topic can drag your entire paper down, making your research difficult or impossible, and causing you to receive a poor grade for your paper. With this in mind, take a look at some best practices to help you develop the 'right research topic'
Choose a Topic That Best Fits the Research Assignment:
Before you begin your research, read over the assignment carefully and ask yourself the following questions.
What is the purpose and format of the assignment? (e.g.: argumentative essay, research paper, debate, oral presentation)
How long will it be? (e.g.: the number of pages or the number of minutes)
What research might you need to write a quality paper? (e.g.: books, articles, primary sources, video, etc.)
If you do not understand what is expected, be sure to ask your instructor to clarify the assignment.
Consider Resources to Help You Develop Your Topic and Questions:
- Discuss potential topics with your class instructor or a librarian at the information desk. (You can also schedule an appointment for a 30-45 minute reference consultation. Click here for the form)
- Look at our Contemporary Issues database collection and use such resources as CQ Researcher, Issues and Controversies, or Opposing Viewpoints to get significant background information on a topic.
- Browse the Pro/Con books section of the library located near the information desk. (Click Here to browse the collection through our online catalog)
- Review our Library Research Guides for directions on which Specialized Encyclopedias and Dictionaries, Websites, Statistics, Journals/Magazines, or Books and Media Materials pertain to certain topics.
- 10,000 Ideas for Term Papers, Projects, Reports and Speeches by Kathryn Lamm is a good source for potential topics in a wide range of subject areas. A symbol is included with each topic to give you an idea about the level of research and resources required to write about it. The latest edition of this book is available at the Information Desk.
Choose a Topic that is 'Not too Broad', 'Not too Narrow', but 'Just Right'
Another important factor to consider is whether your topic is too broad to write about in a brief essay or whether your topic is too narrow and you find yourself struggling for words and research sources. You want to find a topic that is 'just right', neither too narrow nor too broad. For instance, let us say you wish to do an informative paper on World War II. Entire encyclopedias and volumes of books have been written about this topic, and it is far too broad to cover in a single brief essay. Perhaps though, you can narrow your focus to just a historical overview of important dates, an essay on how the war began, or an essay about a certain battle or event such as D-Day. However, you want to be careful that you do not narrow your topic too far. For instance, you may find great difficulty finding sources of information on something extremely specific such as a particular gun or tank used in the war.