Research Assignment Tips: Brainstorm Your Topic

By Dana Longley, assistant director for library instruction and information literacy, Academic Technologies

March 28, 2014

One of the most difficult steps to the dreaded research assignment is the first one: figuring out a manageable topic or question. Students often start with course readings and notes, but then what? An effective way to tackle this is to brainstorm any possible topic. Time spent doing this will help keep the topic focused and manageable. It also will save time and effort when it comes time to find scholarly information sources. The people, events and issues discovered during the brainstorm process can form the basis for what is typed into any search box to get the most relevant results.

To do this, ask four basic questions (4 Ws) about a possible topic. Jot down any and all ideas that are applicable:

  1. Who is involved? This can include specific people or groups.
  2. Where is the topic focus? This can include specific geographical area(s).
  3. When in time? This includes, for example the current status of the topic and/or looking at how it existed in the past. Also consider if current and or historical publications are useful.
  4. What area(s) of study are involved? This can include looking at the topic through a specific professional or cultural lens and considering possible subtopics, related topics and alternate terms that may be useful.

Brainstorming example:

Initial research topic:  use of aerial drones

Given the 4 Ws described above, ask not only what is of interest, but what aspects of the topic might the author of a book or journal article write about?

  • Who: US Federal government, US military, Homeland Security, local police forces
  • Where: United States (compare to other nations?)
  • When: current only (going back to 9/11?)
  • What: policy studies, criminal justice, laws and Constitution, anti-terrorism, military-industrial complex, privacy rights, Patriot Act, commercial use (Amazon?)

There are no right or wrong questions or answers and it’s something that you can work on and grow throughout the research process. It can be done with a simple piece of scratch paper, or with more advanced techniques, like a mind map, which also can help organize topic ideas and arguments. A tutorial on the use of mind mapping can be found here:

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