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ENGCMP 0200: Seminar in Composition - Oakland Campus

A guide for students in ENGCMP 0200: Seminar in Composition on the Oakland Campus.

Background Information

A little time now may save a lot of time later

Collecting a little background information on your topic idea before you do a lot of searching can help you define and focus it into something that's more researchable. You can also find out if your topic is even something that interests you, or if others have ever researched it.

jot down a few topic ideas as keywords to use in prelimiary searching

Jot down a few ideas (keywords) related to your topic, then perform some preliminary, basic searches in general tools that can give you an overview. Some excellent tools for collecting background information:

  • Scan a few articles in reliable subject-area or specialized encyclopedias, or online databases that provide REFERENCE overviews, e.g., Credo Reference that's available at Do an initial search of PittCat, our online catalog, too and skim the result list, looking at the abstracts and summaries of the individual item records. (Are there enough credible sources on your topic available for you to  meet your assignment requirements?) At this point in the research process, Wikipedia may also serve you well.

In doing your preliminary research, if you discover that this topic has possibilities, take the time to add additional words to your keyword list.

Collecting background information is not the same as conducting research. At this point you're just getting a general "feel" for your topic. An hour spent on this step may save you countless hours in the future.

Focus Your Topic

You'll probably need to focus your topic, or narrow it down. Most students start out with topics that are way too broad for their assignments. If your topic is too broad, your research will be much more difficult, and you'll waste a lot of time looking for information that you won't use.

For example, if you try searching for information on global warming, you will quickly be overwhelmed. Global warming is a large subject, covering a variety of disciplines, topics and issues. How can you narrow this topic?

Brainstorm again.

Jot down all the ideas and questions you might already have about the topic. Think about the who, what, when, where, and especially the why and how for your topic.

if you have a broad topic, you need to find a way to narro it and make it more focused

  • What do you know about global warming? What don't you know?
  • Is there a geographical area you want to focus on?
  • Are there individuals or organizations involved in this issue?
  • What are some areas impacted by global warming?
    • Environmental
    • Political
    • Economic
    • Human element.

It may help to set up a table or chart moving from the general topic to narrower topics:

Brainstorming A Topic

Topic Narrower Topic Even Narrower
Global Warming » Environment » rising sea levels
» destruction of rain forests
» air pollution
  » Political » Kyoto Protocol
» roles of government
  » Human Element » impact on world health
» reducing use of fossil fuel
  » Economic » agriculture
» role of corporations
  » Geographical » developing countries
    » Antarctic region

If the chart is too formal for you, you might like making a mind map or concept map. A whiteboard or a big piece of paper are all you need to make a mind map. Here's the same information as above, but in a mind map: 

Mindmap for global warming

The secret to mind mapping is to free yourself from rules. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or formatting. Just jot down ideas until you can't think of anymore, then go back and make connections between the ideas. If an idea appeals to you, make it the center idea on a new piece of paper and brainstorm more details.

Try mind mapping with! Click on the "start now" button to begin. You only need to register if you wish to save and access your mind map later.

Topic to Question

Dig into your topic to find the question!

Once you've narrowed your topic to something workable, you need to restate it as a question.  A question requires an answer, and research is all about the search for answers. 

Here's an example:

Broad Topic: global warming

Focused Topic: global warming and world health

Possible Research Questions:
How will changes in the world climate increase health risks for people worldwide?
What should the U.S. government do to prepare for an increase in climate-related diseases? 
What is the role of the World Health Organization in response to increasing diseases? 

As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, then it's likely too simple to be answered and analyzed in a college-level paper.

However, once you have a research question, break it into even smaller questions in order to make your research more manageable. For example:

How will changes in the world climate increase health risks for people worldwide?

  • What climate changes are expected?
  • What diseases are most sensitive to climate change?
  • What areas of the world are most at risk?
  • What statistics are there to prove that health risks are increasing?
  • ... and so forth

You can see that research is basically a quest to find answers to the questions you are asking!

Developing a Research Question Video Tutorial

To learn more about developing a research question, watch this tutorial from Wilfrid Laurier University Library.