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Strategies to help students find a project topic

January 7, 2011

Sometimes, one of the hardest parts of writing a term paper is just starting out: What on earth do I write about?

Faculty sometimes provide a very narrow set of topic choices, but students are often given wide latitude to select a topic of interest to them.  Then they just need to decide (a) What are they interested in? and (b) How can that be a term paper topic for my upper level science class?  Easy enough, right?  Not for many students.  I actually remember a mild panic setting in when I was an undergraduate given unlimited options about what to write about.

Thick arrow made from jigsaw puzzle pieces

Thick arrow made from jigsaw puzzle pieces. CC image courtesy of flickr user Horia Varlan

In a couple of disciplines, I have done informal sessions outlining strategies to help students find a topic.  I present some resources and give students time to poke around.  I’ve done this as a modified jigsaw activity with good results.  With the professor and the librarian present, the students can ask questions and get clarification about their topic or resource choices.  End of semester survey results indicate that this seems to be helpful for students.

All of the strategies I present basically show students a variety of resources to help spark their ideas – they don’t have to think of a topic off the top of their heads.

Examine Science Blogs and News Sites

Advantages: Articles are written in easy to understand prose and their brevity make it easy to scan multiple topics quickly.

Disadvantages: You will have to translate the topic idea from the news article/blog into the primary literature.

Look at Relevant Journal Table of Contents

Advantages: You are going directly to the primary literature, and once you find an article, expanding your search can be very easy by tracking down citations.

Disadvantages:  Article titles are notoriously difficult to comprehend for undergraduates.  Something that might be particularly interesting might be hidden behind overly complex scientific language.

Searching Relevant Databases

Advantages:  If you have a general idea of what you might want to do, this might be very useful for helping you narrow down your topic.  You also make a very quick leap to the scholarly literature.

Disadvantages:  A search for “the evolution of fish” might turn up so many results that you can be overwhelmed.  And scanning journal article titles can sometimes lead to more confusion, not less.

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