Dangerous Liaisons - UW Libraries

February 8, 2017

Helping Students Develop Strong Research Topics

Jessica Martinez

As a new instructor,  assessment has been of great and immediate value to me. Recently, I asked students to write on a note card which new skill they were the most confident in and what they were still confused about. Overwhelmingly, the students stated that they were still unclear how to narrow down their research. How does a student take a broad prompt and write a strong and persuasive 4-page paper?

The article Assessing the Scope and Feasibility of First-Year Students’ Research Paper Topics by librarians at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discusses this very pertinent and difficult question. How do we, as library instructors with a one-time 50-minute session, help students create research papers that have “researchability”, “appropriate breadth”,”language context”, and an “arguable topic”(Rinto, 2016)? There are many ways to answer this question, and the article gives concrete suggestions for the various stages of lesson development.


When collaborating with instructors before the session:

  1. Discuss the idea of research as a conversation with the instructor so you have a shared metaphor when discussing research with students.
  2. Share ideas for what make feasible research topics for students. First-year students are learning both new content and new methods for articulating what they have learned.  Keeping the scope of papers in the realm of things they are already somewhat familiar with (the paper suggests topics like health, the environment, education, media, and technology) helps them become masters of content and form, not just skim the surface.

Before the session with students:

  1. Introduce research as a conversation with the class before the session with an in-class visit or sharing a video, like the one we have on the Research 101 LibGuide.

During the session:

  1. Spend more time on topic development.
  2. Provide students with a guiding worksheet that helps develop a research question.
  3. Have the students work in groups to critically evaluate an article in one of the familiar topic areas listed above.

This pedagogy is backed up by extensive research in the article. The authors share how these practices can improve the effectiveness of library sessions in teaching students how to write strong, persuasive papers that will make them better students as well as researchers.


Assessing the Scope and Feasibility of First-Year Students’ Research Paper Topics. By: Rinto, Erin; Bowles-Terry, Melissa; Santos, Ariel J.. College & Research Libraries, Nov2016, Vol. 77 Issue 6, p749-764