Skip to content

Brainstorming Research Paper Topics

If you require your students to write a paper, you know that one of the toughest things for students is narrowing a broad paper topic to one that is sufficient for a course paper.  This quick group activity helps students begin to refine their ideas with some help from their classmates.

  • Have students take out a piece of paper and write their potential paper topic in the center.  (Tell them to write in small handwriting!)  Tell them it’s normal for students, as well as professors, to start out with broad paper ideas that need to be narrowed.
  • Then, have students form groups of 3-4.  Each student should pass her/his piece of paper to the left (or right!), and all students should spend 1-2 minutes writing what comes to mind when they see their classmates’ paper topics.  Show them a picture like the one above (perhaps with a slightly more related topic!), and explain that they are creating brainstorming webs.
  • Students should continue to pass their papers around until everyone in the group has commented on each other’s paper ideas.
  • Then, give students a moment to look at their webs.  If you want to spend extra time on the activity, you can also ask them to pair up with someone from their group, talk through their webs, and talk through any ideas that the activity spurred in their minds.

Narrowing or broadening your topic

How long will your paper be?  How many references do you need?  When considering potential topics, make sure its scope will be manageable and fit your paper's requirements.

If your topic is too broad, you'll be overwhelmed with articles to choose from, many of which will be conflicting and/or won't be specific enough to the subject you want to investigate.
On the other hand, if your topic is too narrow, there may not be enough material for you to use.  

To narrow down a broad topic, focus it some more by looking at a particular perspective, time period, place, population group, or more than one of these.

For example, instead of "body image," consider a more focused aspect of this topic.  
- body image and women and television
- body image and teenagers and self-esteem

To expand a narrow topic, rework your search to include broader or related concepts.

For example, instead of "genetically modified tomatoes and nutrition," consider:
- genetically modified foods and nutrition 
- genetically modified and nutrition

Please ask a librarian if you'd like more assistance!