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Tackling Information Problems (TIP): Choose and explore your topic

Information Literacy tutorial for undergraduate students

Choose and explore your topic

Topic selection

Picking a topic for a paper or thesis can be really hard. Here are some tips.

  • Look for a topic that interests and challenges you, as you're going to be working on your topic for quite some time. 
  • Look at current events, gleaning ideas from resources such as online newspapers or news sites.
  • Consult a specialized encyclopedia available on the library website. Lemmas from encyclopedias are a great source for topic ideas.
  • Browse recent issues of journals in your subject area (use the library's A-Z Journal List). This can give you a good idea of the latest research and current issues.
  • Go to the university library, find out where you can find books in your field (check the upper left side box for more info), and browse the shelves. Pick an interesting book and read the introduction. Skim the table of contents to get an idea if the book covers the topics you care about. Then choose a topic in which you're interested and read the chapter in question.

Topic exploration

Once you have picked a topic that interests you, you'll need to do some exploratory research to understand the topic more thoroughly. 

 Start with writing down the things you already know about your topic -- this will determine at what point you begin your research. What aspects of the topic can you identify? What are related issues? A great way to activate prior knowledge and identify your interest is mind mapping. A mind map is a visual representation of the things you already know (and would like to know) about your topic. Check out the box 'How to make a mind map' to learn more about mind mapping.

 The next step is familiarizing yourself with the existing research. What have academics said about your topic? What are recent research findings, different theoretical perspectives, authoritative authors, and relevant terminology? Here are some tips on how to go about it. 

  • Begin with an online search.
    A good way to start is to do some online searches to better familiarize yourself with the topic. Simple Google searches can work well here. Be aware that the quality of information you'll find is highly variable. Pay attention to domain name extensions, e.g., .edu (educational institution), .gov (government), or .org (non-profit organization). These sites represent institutions and tend to be more reliable. Be watchful of .com (commercial) sites. 
    Wikipedia articles can help you quickly frame your topic and provide some suitable search terms. 
  • Use dictionaries and (specialized) encyclopedias.
    Dictionaries are useful to help define unfamiliar words. Check specialized encyclopedias: entries in encyclopedias will provide you with a summary of your topic and familiarize you with specialized terminology. Encyclopedias are also very useful for their references (detailed information about the publications that were used) and lists of additional resources. The library’s reference collection contains - besides print reference works - a growing number of online dictionaries and encyclopedias.
  • Check out handbooks and introductions,
    which provide broad overviews of a specific subject area. You can find handbooks and introductions in the library collection by entering your keyword (e.g. 'business') along with ‘handbook’ or ‘introduction’) in the library catalog's search box.
  • Search Google Scholar (Google's search engine for scholarly content),
    to quickly find some relevant scholarly sources.
  • Do preliminary research in a library database.
    Conduct some simple searches in a subject-oriented library database, in order to get an idea of what literature has been published on your topic. Limit your reading to recently published material. 
     Check Module 2 for more information on searching library databases. 
  • Read review articles.
    In review articles reputable experts describe and evaluate the current state of the research on a particular topic. Review articles can be of great value for identifying key publications. They are published in review journals (such as Psychological Bulletin and Annual Review of Economics), as well as in 'regular' scholarly journals. Most library databases allow you to limit your search results to reviews. Another strategy to find review articles is combining your search term(s) with the word ‘review’, using the field Abstract.

Where can I find books on my subject?

In the library the books are organized by subject category. To arrange books on the shelves, the library uses call numbers so that books on the same subject area are located nearby each other.
Example: call number: ECO J13 28176. The different parts of this call number indicate:

  • the collection Economics (ECO);
  • the subject category Strategic management (J13); 
  • a serial number (28176).

Check which subject categories are used for books on your field of study, and where you can them. Book collections include Economics, Law, Humanities, Philosophy, Language and Literature, Social Sciences, Theology.

How to make a mind map

To make a mind map, you

  • take a piece of paper (A4 or larger);
  • place your topic in the center of the page;
  • let it branch off in all directions into various aspects and sub-aspects;
  • continue branching until all your ideas appear on the map;
  • draw lines between thoughts to indicate relations;
  • use colors, symbols, figures;
  • keep it to as few words as possible: use keywords

You can also skip paper and pencil and use computer-generated mind maps. There are a lot of free (collaborative) mind-mapping tools out there! Click on the image to view a readable version: