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Information Literacy: Guide for Students: Topic Selection

Guide for Library Instruction

Understanding Your Assignment

Before you begin any research for an assignment, it is important that you plan a research strategy so that you have time to complete your work. Here are a few tips to consider:

  1. Make certain you clearly understand the requirements of the assignment before you begin to do your research. Ask your instructor questions BEFORE you begin your work. 
  2. Review the Library Tutorials on how to do research:
  3. Set up an appointment with Dr. Mary Hricko to discuss your project and to get assistance. 
  4. Use additional library resources in this guide to help you with your research.

If the Topic is Assigned:

When an instructor gives you an assignment that requires library research, here is how to get started:

  • read the assignment carefully to understand how it will be graded; note the due date
  • develop a schedule to complete the tasks of your assignment (research, writing, final edit)
  • begin your research with library resources
  • annotate and cite the resources you plan to use for the assignment
  • ask the library staff for help to find additional resources
  • begin drafting your assignment; set up appointment with online writing center to review your draft
  • research and write more about your topic
  • finish first draft and submit it for review at the writing center; fix any corrections
  • submit final draft by the due date

Procrastination is not a good plan. Begin work on your assignment early in case you need request library materials, edit rough drafts, and revise your work. Working on an assignment at the last minute tends to yield a poorly written paper. 

Always use the resources available such as the library and tutoring center to help you improve the quality of your assignment. 

If You Are Asked to Pick Your Own Topic:

Your instructor may assign you a specific topic, but most often, you are usually given the opportunity to select your own topic of interest.

When deciding on a research topic, here are some suggestions on how to get started:

  • brainstorm for ideas
  • choose a topic that will enable you to read and understand the literature
  • ensure that the topic is manageable and that material is available
  • make a list of key words
  • be flexible
  • define your topic as a focused research question
  • research and read more about your topic
  • formulate a thesis statement

Be aware that selecting a good topic may not be easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information. Before selecting your topic, make sure you know what your final project should look like. Each class or instructor will likely require a different format or style of research project.

Special Topic Strategies

Academic Program Related Topics

Often, for program-related courses, you will be asked to identify and write about an important issue or challenge in your field.

Here are some ways to begin:

1. Browse a professional organization's web site.

2. Browse a trade publication related to your career or program.

Try a search that is similar to:

Search boxes with diesel motors and job or career or profession as key words

3. Review library guides related to your subject or topic area: 



What's the Assignment?

Often, instructors will require you to research a topic that fits a given theme. For example, for an English 1 class you are asked to write about a topic related to an environmental issue. Now you have several choices for exploring for a specific topic: (you can also explore the videos on the left!)

1. Search Academic Search Complete

which provides full text for more than 4,000 scholarly publications covering academic areas of study including social sciences, humanities, education, computer sciences, engineering, language and linguistics, arts & literature, medical sciences, and ethnic studies.  To begin, try a keyword search:


Once you do, you'll find a summary entry that will provide context and background:


The next step is to browse the 'Related Topics' index for a subtopic that could be of interest to you:


If there isn't a good idea in the list, look for a 'See More' link. Or, try clicking around on the links to find another topic related to those listed. Hopefully one of these will be of help.

2.Browse the Opposing Viewpoints Issues Index

And notice it has a dropdown for categories of issues.

Image: Opposing Viewpoints Browse issues index

3. Explore the web!

We suggest trying a Google Advanced Search (look for this symbol after you search: Image: Google gear (options) icon) You will have more options for searching. Enter some terms you associate with your research theme:

Image: Google advanced search

Researching a Topic You Know:

Especially early in the semester, faculty might assign you a paper that asks you to explore a topic with which you have some familiarity. Perhaps you will also be asked to add to that knowledge by consulting other sources. 

On occasion, some students resist the idea that they need to explore beyond what they already know about a topic. However, as an emerging writer, college research means reviewing what is known about a topic, collecting relevant detail and examples, and sharing and acknowledging the work of experts and journalists.

Statistics and Fact Checking

Image: Generic graph showing data trends

Although you might very well know important facts about your topic, your writing will be helped by including data, expert opinion, and corroborated facts that you reference in your papers.

Other good websites:

Image: How Stuff Works Logo

This is a great site for explaining complex systems and providing technical descriptions.

Finding News? How hard can that be?

Certainly try the web to search for news on a topic, or even browse a topic for news coverage. If you have trouble, it might make sense to try some of the Library Database options below.

Websites for exploring news options:

Library Databases for News Content

Many of our databases index and provide access to the full text of articles for many current publications. Often, with a bit of practice, it is easier to find relevant news content through databases than it is to find them on the web. Databases also provide both text-to-speech capabilities and automatic citation generation.