The Teaching Librarian

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Student Research Strategies

General Tips on Narrowing Topics

Are students at the reference desk asking you for paper topics? Do they have a general subject in mind but no specific issue to discuss or analyze? While a good reference interview characterized by open questions will help get things started, you may want to recommend a resource the student can browse that might spark the student's imagination. Such resources can assist the student at several stages in the process of narrowing his or her research topic:

  • providing general background information on a subject
  • matching a topic with the subject classification systems used in the library
  • determining which academic disciplines or professional groups are doing research in that subject
  • illustrating the diversity of specialized areas of research within a subject
  • demonstrating the complexity of ideas studied in a given subject
  • assessing the amount and quality of resources actually available on a topic

Resources that students can use to get started include:

  • general and subject encyclopedias
  • handbooks
  • biographical dictionaries
  • chronologies (to help student limit topic to a time period)
  • print and online bibliographic indexes
  • website, newsletter, or flagship journal of the scholarly society or professional association affiliated with the discipline
  • portal websites for subject areas
  • subject search in the OPAC (or Library of Congress Subject Headings) to break down chosen research area into subheadings



E-mail your comments or suggestions to Stephen Francoeur

Last updated: August 27, 2002