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New College


Going from a broad topic idea to a focused research question requires some preliminary research and analysis to help you gain enough understanding of your topic for you to do effective in-depth research on it. On this page, you'll find links to resources to help you learn some initial information about your topic, brainstorming techniques, and tips for formulating search terms.


Once you have a topic, you'll need to do some research to figure out what aspects of it you want to focus on and how you want to proceed with your research and your paper or project. Try out one or more of the techniques below to help you develop your ideas:

  • Free Write
    Set a timer for 3-5 minutes and commit to writing or typing for that entire time. Write down your ideas about your topic, free associate, reflect on why you've chosen your topic, or whatever else comes to mind. When the timer goes off, look back at what you've written and underline or circle key words, phrases, ideas, and concepts that you think you want to pursue.
  • Knowledge Inventory
    If you want something more structured than a free write, try this exercise. You can time yourself if it feels helpful (about 5 min/question), or just write as much as you can for each:
  1. What do you already know about your topic?
  2. What do you want to learn about your topic?
  3. Who or what can help you learn more about your topic?
  • Mind Map or Concept Map
    If you're more of a visual thinker, mapping can be a useful exercise for thinking through an idea. A mind map puts the main topic at the center and ideas branch off from there, and a concept map puts the main topic at the top of the page and organizes ideas hierarchically underneath it. Branch off from the main idea or topic with related ideas, questions, and concepts. These might be synonyms or related terms, key people, places, or events, etc. There's no right or wrong way to do this, so just use this technique as a way to explore your topic or idea. You can use pen and paper for this, or check out, a free browser-based mapping tool.
  • W5
    Brainstorm questions about your topic using the five Ws--who, what, when, where, why (add "how" if you want, too). Try to come up with at least one question for each. Look back over them and zero in on the ones that seem most interesting to you.


Reference resources like the ones listed below are a great place to gather initial information on your topic, learn vocabulary to help you search more effectively, and help you narrow down your topic.

Beginning Your Research

Once you've developed your idea through brainstorming and preliminary research in one or more reference resources, look back at the work you've done and pick out a few key terms that you think might be useful to help you find more resources when you search Scout or another database.

A few tips for finding resources:

  • The first term you try might not be the right one! Try a synonym, add a second term, or go back to your brainstorming and reference materials to find an alternative term or terms.
  • When you look at your search results in Scout, check out the subject terms listed below each item on the results page for ideas for additional search terms, related topics, or other ways to phrase your search.
    • Example (click on the image for a larger version): To get to the result below, I searched the terms "coffee" and "environment" in Scout. The subject terms under this book might give me the idea to try "coffee industry," "social aspects," and "health aspects" in addition to my original two key words. Another result from this search gave me the idea to try adding specific countries or regions to zero in on where I want to focus my research.
      Screenshot of a Scout item listing with subject terms highlighted.