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The IU Bloomington Libraries' Philosophy collection supports research and teaching in all branches of philosophy.

Understanding Your Assignment

Before you select a topic or develop a research question, it is important to understand your assignment. Understanding your assignment from the outset will help you craft a research question that you can adequately answer in the space and time allotted to you. In this section, we will look at some questions and strategies to consider when decoding a prompt:  

  • What is the purpose of the assignment? Think about the goal of your assignment: Are you trying to persuade a reader? Explain an idea? Apply theories to a text? Tell a story? The purpose of your assignment will guide your research and writing.
  • What kind of writing am I doing? Look for words in the assignment that tell you about the type of writing you are being asked to produce. For example, there is a difference between being asked to "summarize" and being asked to "analyze." Other verbs to look out for include, discuss, define, explain, evaluate, etc.
  • Who is my audience? How will this affect the tone and content of my paper? What are the conventions of the discipline I am working in?
  • What is the scope of the assignment? Determine what the purpose of the paper will be and how much ground you will need to cover. How many topics will you be looking at? How long will the finished paper be?
  • What is the topic of the assignment? Has the professor given you a specific topic? Will you need to find your own?
  • What are the requirements of the assignment? Familiarize yourself with the criteria of the prompt. It is easy to forget about details like number/types of sources, word counts, and formatting guidelines. Look at these early on so that you can better plan for the content and scope of your project.
  • Ask for clarification. Reach out to your professor, TAs, Writing Tutorial Services (WTS), or the Learning Commons Research Desk, with questions about understanding and getting started on an assignment.

Video: Understanding Assignments—UNC Writing Center. (2018)

Adapted from: Swarthmore Writing Associates Program. (2023). Understanding Your Assignment.; Grinnell College. Choosing A Research Topic.; The University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center. Understanding Your Assignment.

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

In some cases, an instructor may assign you a topic or a list of topics. In other cases, you might be asked to generate a topic on your own. An assignment may also fall somewhere between these two cases, asking you to pick a narrower topic from a broader one. In this section we will talk about strategies for selecting a topic that both interests you and helps you develop a research question. 

  1. Pick a Broad Topic: When starting out on your research, it is important to choose a research topic that is not only of interest to you, but can also be covered effectively in the space and time you have available. You may not know right away what your research question is—that's okay! Trying starting with a broad topic:
    • Think about what your assignment is asking for in terms of scope and content. From there, consider topics or units that have come up in class.
    • Was there a reading you really enjoyed? A lecture that stuck with you? If you’re excited about your topic, others will be too! And your research will be a lot more fun. 
    • Do you feel a personal or academic connection to any specific topic?
  2. Narrow Your Topic: Gather background information by doing a few quick searches in OneSearch@IU or in specialized databases. Here are some tips for narrowing a topic:
    • Generate a list of subtopics that relate to the broader topic.
    • Look at your class notes and syllabus for themes.
    • Use subject headings:

Shadowlines : women and borders in contemporary Asia

Video: University of Houston Libraries, Picking a Topic is Research. (2020)

Adapted from: Purdue Online Writing Lab, Choosing a Topic.

Exercises for Generating Topics

In this section we will discuss some exercises designed to help you generate topics for your paper:

  • Brainstorm with classmates, friends, and professors. This can help you develop ideas and explore topics you might not have considered on your own. 
  • Explore non-peer reviewed sources such as newspapers, blogs, and magazines. Looking at current events can help you identify topics that interest you and explore subtopics within those areas.
  • Free-write about the broader topic: Set a time limit and write about your topic. Even if you feel as though you have nothing else to say, keep writing! When you’re done, read over the text and look for patterns in your thoughts, ideas that stick out, and anything of interest that you want to explore some more.
  • Concept map: A concept map is a visual way to organize your thoughts and make connections between ideas. They can take the form of charts, graphic organizers, tables, flowcharts, Venn Diagrams, timelines, or T-charts. Concept mapping is similar to visual mapping, visual webbing, and mind mapping. You can draw a concept map on a piece of paper, reserve a space at the library to use a whiteboard, or use these websites to create concepts maps online: Miro, TheBrain, Lucidchart, Coggle. Below are concept maps for "Concept Mapping" and a "Personal Philosophy of Online Learning":

Example of a concept map

Source: Teton Science Schools (TSS), Concept Mapping

Example of a concept map

Source: Myles’ Blog EDDL 5101, EDDL 5141. "Activity 1–Personal philosophy concept map and rationale" (2016).

In the video below, English Literature PhD student Lucy Hargrave explains how graduate students in the humanities can use concept maps to help them organize their thoughts and notes:

Constructing Your Research Question

Now that you have narrowed down your topic, let's begin to turn that topic into a research question. In this section we will talk about how to develop a question that sets your project up for success. Keep in mind that your question may change as you gather more information and start writing, this is okay! Having a sense of your direction and research question from the outset can help you evaluate sources and identify relevant information throughout the research process.

Explore your topic

  • Return to some of the articles/sources that you found while looking for topics or that you discussed in class—what questions do these sources raise? What are other researchers in this area writing about?
  • Ask open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your topic.
  • Consider the “so what?” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others?
  • What would you like to know more about? What do you think your audience would like to know more about?
  • Think about the value of focusing on a particular period of time, a particular geographical location, a particular organization, or a particular group of people. Narrowing the scope of your paper can make it easier to find sources and develop a strong, concise argument or point.
  • What do you want to say in your assignment? What are the key points and arguments that you want to get across? Which subtopic, timeframe or other limitation would allow you to make these points in the most effective way?
  • Try filling out a worksheet to organize your thoughts.

Pick One Research Question

Evaluate the questions you’ve asked and pick one that speaks to you. If there are a few questions that interest you, focus and tailor their components into a singular research question which you will be able to address in the space and time allotted for your paper. Consider the wording of the question and the scope of the assignment. A good research question is clear, focused, and has an appropriate level of complexity. Developing a strong question is a process, so you will likely refine your question as you continue to research and to develop your ideas. Use the following to evaluate whether or your question will be appropriate and workable for your assignment:

Clarity. Is your question clear? Do you have a specific aspect of your general topic that you are going to explore further? 

Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful sometimes?
Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on the social networking sites Facebook and TikTok?

Focus. Is your question focused? Will you be able to cover the topic adequately in the space available? 

Unfocused: How are Asian Americans represented in the media?
Focused: How do television advertisements in the United States perpetuate the model minority stereotype?

Complexity. Is your question sufficiently complex? Can your question be answered with a simple yes/no response or does it requires research and analysis?

Too simple: Did COVID-19 affect parents?
Appropriately Complex: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the mental health and work-life balance of teleworking parents with young children?

Video: Laurier Library, Developing a Research Question. (2017)

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to Write a Research Question.; Monash University Library. Developing research questions.