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SPURS - guide for instructors

Starting Research - Choosing a topic and background information

Choosing a topic

Choosing a topic is the most difficult piece of research. Choosing a bad topic makes them frustrated and resentful of the research process. You'll find that students often choose topics that are:

  • Too broad (ex: tech industry in Texas)
  • Too specific or obscure (i.e. something for which there is little written, such as, "is mixed martial arts an art form?")
  • Have a markedly unpopular opposing viewpoint not conducive to argument-based research (i.e., there is a lot written about why dog fighting is bad, but nothing written about why it is ok)

It's not a good idea to choose a topic 'out of the blue' - teach your students to start broad in research inquiries and learn about what people are arguing about. Encourage them to read encyclopedia or news articles and to ask themselves: 

  • What are issues related to my broad issue? (ex. tech industry in Texas - jobs and income - gentrification)
  • Who cares about my topic? Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are the stakeholders arguing about? Why do they care? Why are they invested in this issue?

As they delve deeper into their topics, encourage students to use background information to identify:

  • important events, dates, laws or legislation or court cases in their topics
  • bibliographies and works cited - students often don't know to 'follow the conversation'

Encourage them to start a Research Log - this could be a Word doc you or the student creates or this worksheet that walks them through gathering the important information they will need to develop an effective research strategy. Students often don't keep track of their searching and reading, so they get frustrated in their disorganization.

Choosing a topic - locally

When choosing a topic with a local viewpoint, you need to have students familiarize themselves with local issues and conversations.

Train students to immerse themselves in local issues before choosing a topic.

Where to send them:

Room for Debate (NY Times): a variety of topics are covered and each topic includes opposing viewpoints from experts. Follow Room for Debate on Twitter: @roomfordebate

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