Because the vastness of available information often intimidates students, it is particularly challenging for college writers to narrow their focus for research assignments. The research questions suggested on the Establishing Research Questions page, for example, are a step away from the topical approach, but they are too broad for most college writing assignments.
How do we move students from Does inclusive education best serve students with disabilities? and How was Elizabethan drama shaped by culture? to, say, Does inclusive education in high school prepare developmentally disabled students for future vocational pursuits? and How did Elizabethan religious thought shape the tragedies of William Shakespeare? First, a clear communication of the assignment's rhetorical context will help students define a focus. In addition, we can emphasize the importance of such factors as accessibility of research sources, time allowed for research, and suitability of available sources to rhetorical context. Consideration of these factors will steer students away from preliminary research questions that are too narrow as well as those that are too broad. The reference librarians at CSU Libraries have prepared a comprehensive guide entitled How to Do Library Research. Direct your students to the topic selection tips for discussion of the factors listed above. (These links will take you to another CSU site.)
As instructors, we can help students focus their research by not limiting their choices more than is necessary. For example, if we've limited the kinds of sources students can use, we should be certain that there are plenty of allowable sources available that are appropriate to the rhetorical context. If the rhetorical context asks students to engage in a current debate, we are unfair to require that students use only books as their research sources. With instruction on assessing source reliability, students can find information in an online database or on the World Wide Web that is more appropriate to some rhetorical contexts than what they can find in books.
View Introducing Library Research