Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:
- Questions require answers. A topic is hard to cover completely because it typically encompasses too many related issues; but a question has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial.
- Questions give you a way of evaluating answers. A clearly stated question helps you decide which information will be useful. A broad topic may tempt you to stash away information that may be helpful, but you're not sure how. A question also makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research.
- A clear open-ended question calls for real research and thinking. Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in more meaningful activity of community and scholarship.
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Developing a question from a broad topic can be done in many ways. Two such effective ways are brainstorming and concept mapping.
brainĚstormĚing noun: 1. A method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group spontaneously contribute ideas. 2. A similar process undertaken by a person to solve a problem by rapidly generating a variety of possible solutions.
The American Heritage« Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000
Brainstorming is a free-association technique of spontaneously listing all words, concepts, ideas, questions, and knowledge about a topic. After making a lengthy list, sort the ideas into categories. This allows you to inventory your current awareness of a topic, decide what perspectives are most interesting and/or relevant, and decide in which direction to steer your research.
conĚcept mapĚping noun phrase: 1. A process, focused on a topic, in which group or individual brainstorming produces a visual graphic that represents how the creator(s) thinks about a subject, topic, etc. It illustrates how knowledge is organized for the group or individual.
You may create a concept map as a means of brainstorming; or, following your brainstorm, you may take the content you have generated and create your map from it . Concept maps may be elaborate or simple and are designed to help you organize your thinking about a topic, recognize where you have gaps in your knowledge, and help to generate specific questions that may guide your research.
Combining brainstorming and concept mapping (brainmapping, if you will) can be a productive way to begin your thinking about a topic area. Try to establish as your goal the drafting of a topic definition statement which outlines the area you will be researching and about which you will present your findings.