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RHE 398T Help Materials

These pages support instructors of RHE 306 and RHE 309 to teach information and digital literacy skills.

Choosing a Controversy

Background Information

What to know about choosing a controversy

You are likely an active reader - you are curious about a broad range of topics. You go down 'rabbit holes'. You talk to your friends about things you read about and you seek out expertise. These are habits that you formed over time. In my experience, students have these traits, too, but they need to direct their curiosity to college research and towards their identity as citizens in a democracy.

Choosing a topic is research. Expect students to choose topics that are...

  • Too broad (ex: 'top 10% rule')
  • 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 and/or is an overly simplistic argument (ex. 'there is a lot written by people who are against plastic bags, but nothing written by people who are pro plastic bags')

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. sexual assault on campuses - affirmative consent standards - adjudication)
  • 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'


  • Early intervention with unresearchable or problematic topics is essential. A frustrated researcher begins to resent the process. Send students to the library or to the chat service at the earliest stages, or give feedback yourself if you feel comfortable.


This may be the first time students have ever used a library database and they may need to be told that they can access these databases from their dorm or from home with their EIDs. Direct them to the Choose and Develop Your Topic tab on this page: 

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