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Information Literacy, Level One: Refining your topic

This guide is designed to support the Information Literacy unit within ENG 111, but also provide a first-level introduction to research skills for any Meredith College student.


Image from Goldilocks story bookRemember the fairy tale about Goldilocks?  One bowl of porridge was too hot and another too cold, but the third was just right.  With research topics, a similar idea applies.  You want a topic that's neither too broad nor too narrow, but just right to research.  You may not know whether your topic is "just right" until you begin searching, but the tips below will help improve your odds that you'll start with a good topic.

Once you start searching, you may need to rethink your topic based on what you're finding.  Don't be afraid to change or modify your topic if your initial topic isn't panning out!

Narrowing your topic

If your topic is too broad, you will retrieve too much information to wade through.  Try to narrow your topic's scope.

Consider these questions to help you narrow your topic:

  • Think of: Who, What, Where, When, and Why aspects of your topics
  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • Is there a specific time period you could focus on?
  • Is there a geographic region or country on which you would like to focus on specifically?
  • Is there a particular aspect of this topic that interests you? For example, historical influence, sociological aspects, psychological angles, specific groups or individuals involved in the topic.

Still struggling?  Review your search results to look for interesting aspects or angles on your topic, and search those concepts as new keywords.

Info Doctor - too broad?

Is research information too broad

Examples of expanding and narrowing your topic

Too broad: Does social media affect kids?

Too narrow: Does spending 3 hours or more on social media cause depression in 15 year old males in South Carolina?

Just right: Does social media impact high school female friendships?


Too broad: Do stereotypes affect minorities?

Too narrow: Do stereotypes affect minority elementary school students in Texas?

Just right: Do stereotypes in the media still portray minorities in a negative way?

Broadening your topic

If your topic is too narrow, you will find too little information to write a paper about it. Try to broaden your topic's scope.

If your topic is so specific that you can't find enough sources about it, consider these questions:

  • Could you add elements to your topic for examination?
  • Could you think more broadly about this topic? Give thought to the wider implications.
  • Are you focusing on too specific a time period, geographic area, or group of people?  For example, instead of migrant farmers in North Carolina, look at migrant farmers in the South.
  • What other issues are involved in this topic?
  • Eliminate any overly specific keywords from your searches

Still struggling?  Check your textbook, course readings, or subject encyclopedias to find ideas for broader research areas that will lead to more search results.

Info Doctor - too narrow?

Is research information too narrow

Topic exercise

What do you think is the best topic below for a research paper?

Topic Choosing Exercise
Do females who play violent video games exhibit more aggressive behavior towards their parents?: 36 votes (7.59%)
Do video games cause bad behavior?: 9 votes (1.9%)
Does playing violent video games cause more aggressive behavior in adolescents?: 429 votes (90.51%)
Total Votes: 474