Finding Your Research Topic
Lesson Plan - Academic Skills
Subject: Social Studies, English Language Arts
Learning Objectives: In this lesson, students will differentiate between open and closed questions and use an iterative questioning process to generate a focused research topic.
Provided handout (online or hard copy) with two student exercises
To kick off the activity, engage students in an informal class discussion about how they typically engage in research. Encourage honest answers, to help students see how often we default to short internet searches shaped by keywords.
Then, have the class watch the video tutorial "Finding Your Research Topic" to see if any additional insights arise. (Note that the exercise sequence below aligns with the tutorial.)
After the viewing, students can discuss the process illustrated: does it seem realistic to them? How much time might a multi-stage questioning-searching process take? Have students ever engaged in open research, instead of searching for a singular answer to one question?
Students then proceed to Exercise 1 ("Open vs. Closed Questions"), in which they are presented with several topics and are asked to pose both closed questions (answers for which can be found relatively quickly), and open questions (broader inquiry without clear-cut answers). This can serve as an in-class exercise in which students work independently or in small groups.
Outcome of Day 1: Students gain an understanding of the role questioning plays in inquiry, and the notion that research results are often affected by the way questions themselves are shaped.
Exercise 2 ("Letting Questions Guide Your Search") is best completed as homework. Again, this can be integrated into the early stages of an existing research project.
In this exercise, students unpack the research process further by working within a single essay subject: either one provided in the handout, or one already assigned by the instructor. Starting with a broader subject, students first write down a series of foundational questions that can help them become more familiar with the subject's scope. After engaging in a brief search, students write down the answers they discovered; then, after choosing one answer that provoked more interest than the others, students formulate more open questions that will require deeper, more explorative research. That fresh round of research will likely lead to a line of inquiry that reveals a more focused topic for future analysis.
Near the end of Exercise 2, it can be useful to engage in a class reflection. Some students will likely have seen more effective results than others; exploring the experience of a student who feels the exercise "didn't work" can help the class see that shaping helpful questions requires practice, and attention to one's own growing interests.
Outcome of Day 2: After putting the act of questioning into practice, students emerge with a stronger understanding of how multiple rounds of inquiry can help them move away from broad subjects that are difficult to address effectively in an essay, towards more focused topics that can be analyzed more thoroughly.
Students can work through the first exercise alone or in collaboration. The more expansive second exercise can serve as supplemental skill-building instruction for a larger course project.
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
- Distinguish between closed and open research questions
- Shape inquiry goals that lead to deeper subject exploration
- Conduct multiple rounds of question-based research
Abilock, Debbie. "Adding Friction. How Do I Teach Students to Write a Researchable Inquiry Question?" Library Media Connection, 33, no. 5, March 2015. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Content/Article/1947796
Fontichiaro, Kristin. "Nudging toward Inquiry. Move beyond Traditional Research." School Library Monthly, 30, no. 1, September 2013. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Content/Article/1967026
Maniotes, Leslie K. "Tightening the Knot on Inquiry and Research." School Library Connection, March 2020, schoollibraryconnection.com/Content/Article/2212471
Maniotes, Leslie K. Guided Inquiry Design in Action: High School. Libraries Unlimited, 2016. https://products.abc-clio.com/ABC-CLIOCorporate/product.aspx?pc=A5136P
Taylor, Seth. "Finding Your Research Topic." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/Support/Display/2268079?cid=338&productId=2002. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.