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

I’m a dedicated Library Director at The Webb School of Bell Buckle, leveraging my background in higher education libraries to guide students through the crucial transition from school to college and beyond.

I am honored to have served as the AASL Chair for the Independent School Section in 2023 and am excited to begin my upcoming role as Director-At-Large for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) later this year, following my previous experience as a Member Guide in the AASL Emerging Leaders program. These appointments reflect my commitment to advancing library education and professional development on a national scale.

With experience in state-level leadership through the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL), including serving as TASL President in 2012, I bring a wealth of knowledge to my role. My educational background includes certifications as a Library Information Specialist for PreK-12th grade, a Bachelor of Science in Communications (Advertising & Public Relations), a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies (Education & Information Systems), and a Master’s in Library and Information Science.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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