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Research Help for History Students: Focusing Your Topic

This guide has been designed to help history students with research.


Finding a good topic that you are excited to write about is not an easy task.  Oftentimes, it can be very difficult for students to decide on a topic and to then figure out how to make it work for a paper.  Here are some steps to take to help you in the initial stages of topic development.

Step One - Choosing Your Topic

It can be daunting to pick your own topic.  Typically, you will be asked to write a paper relating to the topic of the class.  If that is the case, consider the following:

Were there any readings for the class that particularly stuck with you? - Was there a figure, event, or theme that you wanted to know more about?  If so, perhaps you could draw a research topic from there.

Brainstorm! - Once you've identified something that interests you, brainstorm around that idea.  What questions can you come up with related to that idea?  From there, you'll develop your research question.  

Step Two - Defining the Research Question

Now that you have a topic, you need to make that topic into a research question.  This is where it is helpful to think about the "so what?" of your topic.  Why do you want to write about this?  What are you hoping to discover or what do you want answered through your research?


There are good and bad research questions, so here are some things to keep in mind:

Avoid Yes/No questions! - Your question should be open ended.  Avoid any question that can be answered with a yes or a no.

Instead of asking "Did gender have an effect on Empress Cixi's life?"

try "In what ways did 19th century gender roles limit or enhance Empress Cixi's strategy for ruling China?"

Too Broad? - Make sure your question isn't too broad, or else you will be overwhelmed with information.

Example:  "Why did the Russian Revolution happen?"

Too Narrow? - Also, make sure your question isn't too specific that you are unable to find enough sources to write it.

Example: "In what kind of boat did George Washington Cross the Delaware River?"


A good research question, then, is not too broad, not too narrow, and is open-ended!

Such as: "What were the most important factors in the rise and popularity of the artistic movement the Vienna Secession?"

*Video created by the North Carolina State University Libraries.

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