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ITC571 Research Skills Guide: Choose a topic

Finding your Research Topic

Before settling on a question, spend some time brainstorming the ideas and interests you already have related to your specialisation. Think about

  • stories that are in the news
  • topics that interest you
  • ideas that may have come from a project you've worked on in the past
  • reading some literature on a broad topic.

When you've found a broad topic that interests you, do some more brainstorming. Are there any subtopics that might work for your project, if you're not sure, do some reading in the area.

When you have a general topic, query it until you find questions that catch your interest. Identify the questions that come from a problem related to the topic.

Before you settle on a topic, make sure 

  • Your topic is big enough to complete the end product in the time you have to complete it
  • Identify the evidence your readers would expect to find. Can you find/produce it?

In the final step complete the following...

Topic: I am studying....

Question: because I want to find out what/why/how....

Significance: in order to help my reader understand...

Developing your research question

The aim of this step is to tease out the topic with a series of questions, this will result in your ideas being developed into issues for your research.

Think about the following:

  • What do you want to say?
  • Why this? What's your purpose, what decision/change/action are you looking for?
  • What context makes your views relevant?
  • What evidence is there?
  • Why do your findings matter?
  • To whom do they matter?
  • Who will your findings affect?

Formulating a research question

Think about asking a how or why question. Keep the ideas of clarity, focus and complexity in mind.


The unclear version of the question below doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites might be causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of potential harm (privacy issues), and who may be experiencing that harm (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Unclear question - Why are social networking sites harmful?

Clear question - How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook?


The unfocused research question below is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific effect of global warming (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific animal that is affected (penguins). It also requires the writer to take a stance on which effect has the greatest impact on the affected animal. When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Unfocused question: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?

Focused question: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?

Simple vs. Complex

The simple version of the question below can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the Australia?

Appropriately complex: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in Australia, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

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