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MONT 154N-S01: The Environment and Me (Hess)

Spring 2024

First Steps


Think about the prompt for your assignment, things you've covered in class, and anything you already know about the "big picture" topic you've been assigned. What interests you within this topic? Are there any questions you have about it that you want to explore? For environmental issues, are there issues you find yourself thinking about a lot in your daily life? Is there something you've discussed in class that you want to explore in more depth? Is there something that affects your life that you want to explore? Write down any ideas that come to mind. Are any of your ideas connected?

This is a great opportunity to bring in your own passions and interests and connect them to what you’re learning in your classes. Research doesn't have to be (and shouldn't be) boring. If you choose to research something you're curious about, you might find the research process much more interesting and exciting. Research is about learning something new and making new connections and discoveries. If you're interested in your topic, your audience will be too.

Mind Mapping

One strategy for brainstorming a topic is to make a mind map. All you need is a blank piece of paper and something to write with. Start with your main idea and write it in the center of the page. Then, think about different sub-topics or related topics and write them all around your main idea. Your background research may help inform you here - what themes did you find? Give yourself time to put everything you can think of down on the page. Once you have everything written down, see if you can group similar ideas together. Draw lines to connect related concepts or ideas. 

You can see an example of a mind map around the topic of fast fashion here. Notice how there are connecting lines all over the place - a mind map doesn't have to be perfectly organized! The goal is just to get your ideas flowing and see what natural connections come up. In this example, you'll notice there are a lot of connections to the sub-topic of environmental impact. The creator of this mind map might decide to focus on the environmental impact of fast fashion as a whole, or they may focus on one of the even more specific sub-topics like waste or pollution.

Background Information

Find Background Information

Background research is an important step early in your research process. Spend some time looking for background information while you're developing your topic and again after you've chosen a specific topic or research question. Background research can help you figure out what conversations are already happening about your topic and what is already known about it. You can use newspapers, online publications, social media, textbooks, course readings, encyclopedias, and web sources like a Google Search or Wikipedia to get an overview of your topic. This research can help you identify important information like terminology, names, dates, specific events, and more.

When looking for background information, think about:

  • What are the key terms or vocabulary words related to this topic?
  • Who has already done research about this topic?
  • What subject area(s) does this topic fall under?
  • Are there any major events in the history of this topic?
  • What is the current conversation around this topic? Are people talking about it?

Where to Look

Newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, and contemporary issue databases can all be helpful sources of background information. You can find many of these resources on our A-Z Database list, and some suggested resources are linked below.

Newspaper and Magazine Databases
Contemporary Issue Databases

Focusing Your Topic

Tips for Narrowing Down a Topic

When you start brainstorming a topic, you might think of something fairly generic or broad. For successful research, it's important to take those broad, "big picture" topics and narrow them down into an idea or question that you can confidently research and answer within the scope of your assignment. For example, you might be interested in solving world hunger. This is an important topic, but not likely something you can cover in an eight page research paper. Instead, you might decide to focus on the effectiveness of free school lunch in the United States. This is a more manageable topic that is still part of your larger idea, but gives you the opportunity to make your research much more detailed and focused.

Ask Questions

As you work on refining your topic, ask yourself the five W's: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

  • Who is affected by this topic? Who cares about it? Who should care about it? Is there a specific population to research?
  • What are the main issues or problems in this topic? What questions do I have about it? What influences this topic?
  • When was/is the topic relevant? When did it start/end? Is there a specific time period to focus on?
  • Where is the topic relevant? Where do I want my research to focus (a specific region, country, etc.)?
  • Why is this topic important? Why am I interested in it? Why should other people be interested in it?

Develop Your Research Question(s)

It can be helpful to think of your topic in terms of a question you want to answer. This can move you towards crafting an argument instead of providing a summary or overview of a topic. Think about where information is missing or where there are gaps in your knowledge. What questions do you have about your topic? If you tell a friend about your topic, what questions do they ask? And remember, your research topic doesn't have to be set in stone before you even start researching. It is there to guide you as you discover sources and information.

Try to think of a research question that is:

  • Relevant to the Assignment. Your professor may have given you guidelines for a topic. If you aren’t sure if what you want to research connects with what your assignment asks for, check with your professor.
  • Open-Ended. Your question shouldn’t have one obvious answer. If your research question can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” you may want to restructure it to have more room for exploration. A good research question may have multiple points of view or multiple possible answers for you to explore.
  • Clear and Focused. You don’t want your topic to be so broad that you’re overwhelmed with how much information is out there, but you also don’t want to be so narrow that you can’t find any information. Aim for somewhere in the middle, where you have a clear focus with room to explore.
  • Interesting to You. You’re going to spend a lot of time reading and writing about your topic. Find an angle or question that interests you and that you want to learn more about. If you’re interested in your topic, your audience will be too.

Choosing a Research Topic Video

Choosing a Research Paper Topic - University of Minnesota Libraries

This video from the University of Minnesota Libraries goes over the process of choosing and narrowing down a research topic. They present a few strategies for focusing your topic, including mind mapping, the 5 W's, and freeform/pre-writing.