Student choice in topic selection

My topic is … Aliens, Bigfoot, or the Illuminati

Many of us would agree that giving students a choice in the topic selection process is a good thing. But what happens when the choices are trending towards pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Often the first reaction is to dismiss the topics altogether. This approach is not the best way to handle what some may consider an “un-researchable topic.” Instead, this should be a teaching moment. Continue with the initial idea and help students find subtopics that work. For instance:

  • Aliens can lead to SETI and the research units at Berkeley or NASA
  • Bigfoot can be steered to contrasting and comparing Bigfoot and Yeti folklore
  • Illuminati can be explored in the fiction works of Umberto Eco, Dan Brown, and Shea and Wilson

Pre-search and Vocabulary

Help students use pre-search to find jargon and academic language for a topic. This will be necessary to find studies, reports, and articles in a database. If a student wants to research “the science of smelling” he will need to know the term “olfactory.” In the pre-search phase use Wikipedia, along with an online dictionary and thesaurus.

Helpful resources from colleges and universities

I show a video early in the topic selection process from NC State University to explain that topic selection is part of the research process. And furthermore, the selection process is messy.

Just watching this video helps the hesitant student to understand that they do not have to settle on a topic the moment the research process begins. It also helps those who come up with ridiculous topics to understand the need to narrow their ideas just by seeing the lack of scholarly research available.

Another handy resource for topic selection is a worksheet (PDF) developed by Professor J. Wilkie at Monroe Community College. This worksheet helps students go from a one word topic, to subtopics, to questions, and eventually a topic sentence.

Database Tools

Some databases have tools and widgets to help with the process. We use one such tool inside the GALE databases. This helps students see just how much is available in the database on their topic. This also provides subtopics they may not have thought about.

GALE topic finder screenshot

GALE topic finder screenshot






Author: Hannah Byrd Little

Hello, I am the Library Director at The Webb School of Bell Buckle. I use my past experience in college and university libraries to help my current students in school libraries transition into college, career, and life. I am currently the lead Senior Class Adviser for the Capstone Project. I also served at the state level with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians executive board from 2009-2013 and was the TASL president in 2012. I am certified as a Library Information Specialist for PreK-12th grade, have a BS in Communications with a concentration in Advertising and Public Relations, a BS in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Education and Information Systems and a Masters in Library and Information Science.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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