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Lesson Plan: How to Choose the Topic of a Research Paper

By Trent Lorcher

Interesting writing topics are everywhere. Why, then, do my students keep turning in boring papers? It's because they don't know how to find good research topics the teacher actually wants to read. If you're sick of grading a stack of papers that all sound the same, this lesson plan is for you.

Step1: Obtain a General Understanding of the Subject

Since your students will be spending a great deal of time researching and studying a topic, be sure it interests them. If not, the researcher and his/her readers will get bored quickly. Here are some tips:

  • Get an overview of the subject by doing some reading (In most cases, class time will have been spent on the subject being researched):
    • Read encyclopedia entries on the subject.
    • Skim a review text and note relevant chapters and headings.
    • Look at book titles on the subject.
  • Understand the overall picture from the overview reading:
    • Don't get bogged down in the details and overlook the obvious.
    • Ask yourself what most people already know about the subject.
    • Identify why the subject is important.
  • Answer the questions who, what when, where, why, how, and how much.

Step 2: Identify Hot Topics

Finding "hot topics" in your subject area may lead the researcher into potentially interesting topics. Scan newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, the Internet, and TV programs to find what has caught the public's attention. Here are some tips for finding an interesting writing topic:

  • Controversy: All essays and research papers take a stand for or against something. An ongoing controversy provides interest for readers and writers.
  • Catchwords or cliches: Writers repeat old arguments, old problems, and old solutions without re-examining the facts. A new approach to an old topic might prove interesting.
  • Unexplored topics: Many subjects contain unexplored topics. Look for unexplored topics and give readers a new angle.
  • Subject Authorities: Find out who the authorities are on the subject and find out what they're saying or writing about. These authorities can give neophyte writers interesting ideas.

Step 3: Think

After the general research is complete, researchers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Which topics are least and most interesting?
  • What doesn't make sense?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the "authorities"?
  • How much of the information is conditioned by earlier assumptions and attitudes.
  • What questions need answered?
  • Are there any interesting controversies?
  • Is there a topic not fully explored?

After going through this checklist, writers should identify their topic, create an effective thesis statement, and begin their topic-specific research.