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IDH 2911 (Sexton) : Interdisciplinary Honors Research: Brainstorming the Research Topic

Understanding the Research Topic: Brainstorming it Alone

Often in the research process, it is a lonely journey.  This means you're doing it by yourself, but with the guidance of your professor and/or librarian.  According to WikiHow: Brainstorm-Alone, here are some tips to successfully brainstorm your research topic on your own:  

  • Generate Ideas
    • Write down your goals and problems
    • Do word association
    • Freewrite
    • Draft Lists
    • Doodle Pictures
  • Organizing Your Thoughts
    • Write your ideas down on notecards
    • Make a Mind Map
    • Break the problem down into individual or smaller steps
    • Cube the problem (approaching the problem from different angles
  • Getting Over Mental Block
    • Go for a walk
    • Take a break
    • Talk to yourself
    • Listen to music

Databases to Use for Brainstorming

If you're having trouble selecting a research topic, peruse the following databases for possible topics.



CQ Researcher explores a single "hot" issue each week, ranging from social and teen issues to environment, health, education, and science. 




Issues and Controversies (Facts on File) offers a wealth of current topics research information, including pro/con discussions of hot issues,




Access World News (Newsbank) offers current, diverse global perspectives on topics related to controversial issues, the environment, health, education, science, the arts, literature, business, economics, criminal justice, and from a variety of current and retrospective news media including newspapers, newswires, broadcast transcripts, blogs, periodicals, videos and web-only modules.

The Goldilock's Theory: A Just Right Topic: Broad vs Narrow

Too Broad:

A topic is too broad when you find that you have too many different ideas or resources about that topic. While you want to start the writing process with as many ideas as possible, you will want to narrow your focus at some point so that you aren't attempting to do too much in one essay.

Here are ways to make your result list less in quantity, but still high in relevence:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  Example. if your topic concerns vaccines, examine the theories surrounding of the rate of failures in vaccines.
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  Example, if your topic is vaccines, investigate government regulations of vaccines.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  Example, on a topic on vaccines, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's vs. the 2000's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  Example, on a topic on vaccines, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical Location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.  Example, if your topic concerns vaccines, investigate vaccine practices in Africa or the Middle East.

Too Narrow:

A topic is too narrow if you can't find any information about it.  Though student writers most often face the challenge of limiting a topic that is too broad, they occasionally have to recognize that they have chosen a topic that is too narrow or that they have narrowed a workable topic too much.  If your topic is so narrowed and focused, it can become too academic or pedantic.  If your topic is too narrow, try making it broader by asking yourself related questions.

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for.  Example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written. If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • Use different databases.  Use the Library catalog to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.  Remember if you need help finding databases or techniques, contact a librarian.
  • Change the Words.  Are you using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic?  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.
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