Narrowing Your Research Topic (Nate Wood)

Note: This is my way of instructing how to narrow a research question for the Conference Paper. Narrowing a research question is vital because writing a paper on a broad topic makes it very difficult to write a concise, focused final paper. I typically teach this right after introducing the Conference Paper assignment.

 Objective: Students will understand how to narrow their topic, which means they’ll learn how formulate a research question. Students will also learn that writing about a broad topic often does not lead to a great final product.  

  • Narrowing a topic into a research question. 20 minutes
    • Project Bing video Help students understand that our writing can be as random an incoherent as the people in the video. So, in order to focus our research process, (and thus our final compositions) we should formulate a theme, time and demographic specific research question.
    • Project “Narrowing Your Research Question” powerpoint (click here to download​).
      • Your research question needs to be narrowed to a theme, demographic, and timeline. We can compare narrowing a research question to Russian Egg Dolls. Just as there is always one more doll nested inside a larger doll, there is almost always a way to narrow your topic further.
      • To narrow your topic, open the doll. Here are two examples:

Too broad: what is fascism?
Still too broad: how can fascism be prevented?
Narrowed: What types of governmental policies enabled Hitler’s fascist regime of the 1920’s and 30s?

Too broad: What is the effect of social media?
Still too broad: what is the effect of instagram on teenage boys ages 12-18?
Narrowed: *instead of projecting the answer, have class decide how to narrow this question.

      • Project two more examples from the powerpoint, and have the class come up with different ways to narrow your topic.
      • Ask: What are the consequences of not narrowing your research question?
        • too broad a topic would be hard to argue and too hard to be conclusive. So, we must narrow our research question because a broad question is extremely hard to answer conclusively. Broad research questions lead to vague, unfocused papers/theses.
    • Activity: Take the class through a simulated research project in which you narrow a broad topic into a narrow one. Suppose that you wanted to research teenage pregnancy, but didn’t know how to narrow that broad topic. We can start to narrow this topic by asking the various reasons a teenager might become pregnant. As you discuss this research question as a class, list the various ways your students answer this question on the board. For example, among other reasons, the class might say factors that lead to teenage pregnancy include rebellion (non-compliant behavior), dropping out of high school, or not knowing about birth control option.
    • Then, make the argument that each of the factors they listed are one way to narrow your topic. For example, our paper could focus on  the relationship between dropping out of high school and teenage pregnancy. In this case, after we research this specific question, we might argue that there isn’t actually a correlation between the two, for example, or that they are correlated but are not causational. Pick another reason and repeat the same process. Conclude with: Just as there is smaller egg doll nested inside a larger egg doll, there are always ways to narrow down a topic into a more manageable research question.
      • Ask the class: Take 5 minutes to think about how you can narrow your question then share with a partner. Ask someone at end of pair and share to share with class.

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