Help! What should I research?

It's not easy to get started with a research project. You may know the general subject area you will be studying, but how do you narrow it down to an interesting and manageable topic?

1. Build background knowledge. Explore the subject by reading from various sources of information to get a basic idea of terminology, names of important people in the field, historical perspectives, etc. Take a look at Wikipedia or other general reference sources. (Remember, you cannot depend on Wikipedia for reliable information to cite in your project, but to explore a topic, it's fine.) Then, find other academic research, interesting points of view on the subject, or current events happening today that relate to the subject area. Don't take notes, yet, just keep a list of where you found interesting material.

2. Perform an inquiry brainstorm. All research attempts to answer questions, so explore the general subject area until questions about it pop into your head. You may find a graphic organizer helpful for organizing your thoughts

3. Develop initial questions. As you proceed to write questions, follow these rules:
  • Come up with as many questions as you can.
  • Do not stop to answer, analyze, or evaluate the questions.
  • Write down all the questions, even if a question leads to another question.
  • Do not reformulate or edit the questions

4. Share your questions with others. Do they find them interesting? Revise, if necessary.

5. From your initial questions, develop BIG and DEEP questions to research.

How do you tell the difference between small questions and Big questions?
Small Questions
have only one answer
and the answer is in the book
Big Questions
invite others to talk about their ideas
and the answers are in your mind.
What makes Questions BIG Questions?
· BIG questions are “open” questions and cannot be answered with a yes or a no or a small phrase.
· BIG questions require multiple resources to be answered.
· BIG questions must be interesting to you.

A good research question:
* Is open-ended
* Leads to asking other questions
* Has more than a one word answer
* Allows for more than one right answer
* Shows effort and deep research
* Not obvious or easily answered
* Leads to multiple perspectives
* Keeps you thinking / is thought provoking
* Leads to controversy / debate
* Answers other questions
* Is something you want to know and holds your interest

-adapted from a list developed by middle school students at River School, Napa, CA. and posted online by CTAP Region IV.

6. Share your questions with others again. Revise, if necessary
7. Brainstorm researchable components of the questions. Sequence or group, if necessary.
8. Create your final list of researchable questions.
9. Change the main question into a title for your research project.

It is possible that in the process of gathering information to answer your research questions, you discover that the topic area is still too broad and you need to reduce the scope of your research. That is perfectly acceptable as part of the Research Cycle.

Note: These resources were adapted from California's CTAP Region IV's Information Literacy Resources at