Before searching for information, you'll need to have a topic, whether it has been assigned to you or you've developed it on your own. To focus on the most relevant information, it's helpful to put your topic in the form of a question (we sometimes call this a research question). In this module, you'll discover how to choose a topic for your assignment and turn that topic into a specific question.
Develop Your Topic was created by College Libraries Ontario and is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA. It was developed from the following sources:
When you develop your topic, you don’t have to come up with the perfect topic all at once. There is a process that you can follow to refine your topic to be specific and relevant. This will ultimately help you when you search as you will have a clearer idea of what you are looking for. Explore the tabs on this page to discover the following steps in the process for developing your topic:
Watch the video below for an overview of this process.
Although finding a good topic may initially feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, choosing a general topic is the first step. To select a topic, start by thinking about aspects of your field or discipline that might be interesting to pursue, such as 'science education' or 'diabetes treatment.' Do some background reading to understand more about the topic.
You can use Wikipedia Opens in a new window to get a general orientation to a subject you want to investigate further, but do not use it as a source in your final paper, as it is editable by the public. You can try a test search of your library’s resources to see what kind of results you get. If the topic is too general, you may need to narrow it down; if it is too specific, you may need to expand your search.
The following strategies can help you choose a topic:
It's a good idea to avoid subjects that are too personal or emotional, as these can interfere with an unbiased approach to the research; however, it's also important to make sure you have more than a passing interest in the topic. You will be with this topic for an extended period, and it won't be easy to stick with it even under the best circumstances.
Once you have decided on a topic, take that idea and think about it as a question. What do you want to know about the topic? Putting your topic in the form of a question will help you pinpoint the specific aspect of the topic you’re most interested in. You may want to write out a few questions and then choose the one that is most relevant to what you have in mind.
The form below contains some examples that can help you formulate your own question and further refine your assignment’s topic. Use the form below to formulate your own questions, or download a Word document version of the Putting your Topic in the Form of a Question form.
Once you have an initial question, you will want to do a review of the existing literature to see what resources on your topic or question already exist. Based on what you find, you may decide to alter your question in some way before going too far along a path that perhaps has already been well-covered by other scholars.
In the next tabs, you will discover two strategies (PICO and concept mapping) that you can use to refine your question even further. This will help you ensure you have a useful question that will guide your search. Decide which method to use by considering the following information:
If you’re not sure, try PICO first, and if you find the PICO questions don’t fit with your topic, then try concept mapping instead.
PICO is a technique that you can use to formulate and refine your questions. Watch the video and read the information below to learn more about PICO.
PICO stands for (P)Patient, population, or problem, (I) Intervention or exposure, (C) Comparison, and (O) Outcome. To use PICO, answer questions about each of these elements. Formulating an answerable question using the PICO model could look something like this:
Here are some examples of how the PICO method is used to refine a topic:
Not all topics will work with all PICO categories, so don’t worry if you can’t match the model exactly.
Sometimes it can be helpful to add an additional element to PICO. When you include the Timeframe of the topic, this is called PICO(T). When you add the timeframe as an additional element, you have to ask, “over what period of time?” The examples below show how this technique can be applied in different situations.
In [P]______, do/does [I] ______ result in [O] _______ when compared with [C] ______ over [T] _______?
E.g. In nursing home residents with osteoporosis, do hip protectors result in fewer injuries from slips, trips, and falls when compared with standard osteoporosis drug therapy over the course of their stay?
Are [P] ______ with [I] ______ over [T] ________ more likely to [O] _______ when compared with [C] ______?
E.g. Are female non-smokers with daily exposure to second-hand smoke over a period of ten years or greater more likely to develop breast cancer when compared with female non-smokers without daily exposure to second-hand smoke?
Is/are [I] ______ performed on [P] ______ more effective than [C] ______ over [T] _______in [O] _______?
E.g. Are self-reporting interviews and parent reports performed on children aged 5-10 more effective than parent reports alone over a four-week consultation process in diagnosing depression?
In [P] ______, do/does [I] ______ result in [O] _______ when compared with [C] ______ over [T] _______?
E.g. In emergency room visitors, do hand sanitizing stations result in fewer in-hospital infections when compared with no hand sanitizing stations over a year-long pilot period?
Do/does [I] ______ performed on [P] ______ lead to [O]______ over [T] _______compared with [C] _______?
E.g. Do regular text message reminders performed on patients recently diagnosed with diabetes lead to a lower occurrence of forgotten insulin doses over the first six months of treatment compared with no reminders?
A concept map or mind map is a technique where you connect your topic to related words. It may help you analyze your question and determine more precisely what you want to search. Watch the video to see a basic demonstration of this technique, and read the instructions below for more information.
Here’s how to create a concept map of your topic:
This mapping technique aims to improve the depth and clarity of your question. Like the other methods of question refining, its purpose is to help you organize, prioritize, and integrate material into a workable research area, one that is interesting, answerable, realistic in terms of resource availability and time management, objective, scholarly, original, and clear.