Choosing A Research Topic Is The First Step

Choosing a research topic requires thinking small. But students don't do this because their biggest fear is that they will not find enough information on the topic.

However, that is hardly the problem today that it was 30 years ago.

Today, there is so much information to be found on the internet that one almost doesn't have to go anywhere else to find sources. This is unfortunate, but more on that later.

As your teen's parent and teacher, narrowing a research topic will require helping her find a particular niche within the topic when she says to you: “I want to learn more about trains.

Narrowing The Topic Of Trains

Here's a better idea: How did the trans-continental railroad get built? (Actually, this is still a broad topic, but it's an improvement.)

Who were the people who built the trans-continental railroad? (Even better, this will focus on immigrants and movement of people throughout the United States.)

From what sources did the financing come to build the trans-continental railroad? (Here, your teen will learn economics and phrases like “robber barons.”)

Photo Credit: Golden Spike National Historic Site

What were the economic effects on the United States a decade after the trans-continental railroad was built? (See how “a decade” helps limit the topic?)

What types of obstacles were overcome in order to build the trans-continental railroad?

Choosing a Research Topic with More Brainstorming


Brainstorming also helps with choosing a research topic.

Use the 5 W's and H, or the Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, and How? Here's another example:

"I want to do a research paper on the ocean."

Photo taken by Diana Boles

  • Which ocean? Indian Ocean
  • What aspect of the Indian Ocean? the currents, the industry?, the fish?, the mammals? The industry.
  • What cities are major ports off the Indian Ocean? Singapore
  • How did Singapore become a major port?

Then, it happens, she says, "I don't want to do this. I want to study fish."

Ok, which fish? 

Well, how do we get a tuna fish sandwich? "I love tuna." 

How about this for a research topic:

The Tuna: From Ocean to Sandwich


Do you see how that happened? A few questions help get from an impossibly broad topic to something about which your teen is truly curious.  


Sometimes Topics Change

The topic that your teen begins with may not end up as the topic she ends with. You may find that the narrow topic you've chosen doesn't quite offer itself to writing about the three elements you need for a research paper.

While one tries to develop a working thesis before spending much time on the subject, sometimes adjustments have to be made. 

Often, it turns out that in the process of reading and researching information, your teen is unable to find exactly what she was looking for or was interested in, so the topic gets modified.

This is simply a part of the learning process.

However, depending on your homeschool program's requirements, it's just a matter of politely requesting a variation of the topic or modifying the thesis statement. If there are deadlines to be met, don't lose time by slacking on the process of choosing a research topic poorly.

In fact, she could just follow where the research leads, but you should guide her through this to make sure she isn't giving up and drifting. Here's an example of this.

Mummery, Belsnickles, and Julebukk - a personal exploration

In 1985 my husband and I vacationed in Norway where we visited some of his friends. The wife told me a story about the Christmas Goat, or Julebukk. The following year I returned to college and took a course in folklore. When we were assigned a research paper, I decided to investigate the history behind Julebuk (at least, that's how I thought it was spelled at the time.)

Well, guess what? I found nothing, absolutely nothing on Julebuk or Julebukk, and this was checking numerous categories and sources in the main downtown library and University library.

 I didn't live in a small town, and I felt stuck.

Choosing a research topic like this one wasn't turning out so well for me. I talked to my professor and broadened my search to European Christmas celebrations.

What I found was a similar Swedish, German, French, and British tradition called mummery.

(Europe is small, so the same type of festival is found throughout the area.)

The Mummer's Parade in Philadelphia has the same origins.

Rockefeller Christmas tree

Photo courtesy of Public domain clip art

I also found another Christmas celebration called Belsnickles that was popular in Scotland with much of the same habits of dressing up in costumes during the week between Christmas and New Years and entering people's homes (mostly by surprise) and asking for food and drink.

There also is the aspect of revealing one's identity only if the host guesses correctly.

Still No Julebukk???

As it happened, there is a Norwegian Society of Texas in El Paso, so I got in touch with an English professor and asked him if he knew about Julebukk. That and Lutefisk, which you don't want to know about.

While choosing a research topic like Julebukk was risky, it did offer me an opportunity to interview several people of Norwegian descent. Learning to interview is a really good skill to have.

When I finished, I asked for the names of other members of the Norwegian Society.

In total, I interviewed about eight persons who told me their stories from childhood about Julebukk. Although some only remembered their grandparents' stories, these interviews made a vital support source for my research paper.

In the end, I never found one book source for Julebukk. However, with all the anecdotal evidence from my interviews and book research of the other European Christmas traditions,

 I was able to convince my professor that these were related. I received an A and he said that I had made a very convincing argument.

Planning Ahead is The Easiest Way To Choose The Topic

5. The easiest way of choosing a research topic is to listen to your teen throughout the year about the things that interest her. (like tuna sandwiches)

Write them down and save them for later use. Brainstorming ideas with her at the throughout the school year, will ensure a satisfying experience when it comes to completing this arduous task called the research paper. 

Choosing a research topic is only one of the many steps to the research process. 

If you would like to read about writing the thesis statement, you can do that too.

While your teen's research paper will be longer than a five-paragraph essay, you can review that format on this page. 



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