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How to Teach Research Papers - Selecting a Topic

Updated on January 17, 2013
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Options for Topic Selection

Every time I teach the research paper, I change my approach. I have had students choose their own topics and I have given topics. One year I had students do research at the local historical museum and create books on the history of the area. There are pros and cons to each option for topics that students can choose.

In the years that I have students choose a topic that interests them, I inevitably end up with some pretty obscure interests. One student wanted to research fish hatcheries, another - wedding planning. I always end up with a student who wants to write about polar bears and global warming (I do not understand why this particular topic is so popular, but seriously, every time they get to choose, someone picks it!). Obviously the pros to having students choose their own topics is that they get to pick something that is interesting to them, ultimately increasing the motivation to complete the project.

On the other hand, giving direction and guidance towards a topic ensures that you don't end up with something too obscure. The other benefit is that choosing a topic offers a chance to collaborate with other colleagues. This year I have teamed up with the Global teacher and the research project is centered on Renaissance figures. Giving students a general topic like that allows them to still have a say in what it is they are researching. I have also seen teachers who have created a list of already determined thesis statements on a variety of topics (usually connected to history or science for the interdisciplinary aspect) and students can then choose their topic that way.

Regardless of the approach, there are a few steps you can take to make sure that students are researching a topic that is appropriate for the assignment.

How to Choose a Topic

The information below can be used for teachers and students alike. If, as the teacher, you are choosing topics for students, use the tips below as guidelines. If you are allowing your students to choose topics, give them these tips to help them reach an appropriate topic.

The first thing you should do is consider something interesting. The more interesting the topic, the more likely the student is going to complete the assignment and enjoy completing the assignment. Even if it is under an umbrella like the Renaissance, allowing students to choose one aspect of the topic so that it is interesting to them gives them ownership in the assignment.

Consider the purpose for the research project. For example, the Renaissance project my students are doing requires them to prove why their figure should be considered important to the Renaissance and why their actions are different than the Middle Ages. The purpose is important. Do you want your students to compare, analyze, show their opinion, etc.?

After you've found something interesting and determined purpose, some preliminary research can help you focus your thesis. The research should be used to guide the thesis, so topic selection isn't the time to be putting a thesis down on paper. Make sure if you are allowing students the opportunity to make a choice in their research that they start with a somewhat broad topic and allow them to use the preliminary research to narrow their topic to fit the length of the assignment.

Final Thoughts on Topic Selection

When determining the topic for the research paper, above all, make it interesting. Research is difficult enough without having to do it on something that is dry and boring. If you do not feel comfortable with allowing students to chose their own topics (think global warming and polar bears), give students a broad subject to choose something within. If you can, collaborate with a colleague and have the assignment tie together the curriculum in each course.

The next step is Creating Bibliography (Source) Cards.

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