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Martha S. Grafton Library

Research 101

Focusing a Broad Topic

William Badke, in his book Research Strategies, recommends beginning your research by developing a "working knowledge" of a topic. A working knowledge is the ability to talk about a topic for one minute without repeating yourself.


Identify the Four W's of a topic:

  • Who are the populations affected? (e.g. women, Americans?)
  • What are the facts/causes/issues surrounding the topic?
  • When were the people and issues affected? (e.g. a current or historical time period)
  • Where has this topic taken place? (e.g. the US, Ancient Greece)

To find information on the Four W's, try Grafton's Research Guides by Subject. We have links to useful web resources, encyclopedias online and in print, and article databases. If you can't find information on your topic or don't know where to start, Ask a Librarian.


Once you have answered the 4 W's you should be able to talk or write about your topic briefly without repetition. From the facts you have gathered pick the aspects that most interest you. So instead of struggling with the very broad topic of eating disorders, you might choose to research the causes of obesity and overeating in American adolescent females.

Ask a Question:

What about the 5th W, Why? Why? is your responsibility. Why were these people in this place at this time affected by your topic? You answer why wtih a thesis statement and the evidence you have gathered in your research and reflection. The more information you gather, the easier it is to answer the question why.


Instead of a list, your brainstorming might take the form of a chart, which combines foreknowledge of a topic as well as what you discover in your background research. Choosing several elements might lead to a research question. For example, here are some brainstorming examples using the topic of Head Start.

Concept Map:

Sometimes its helpful to make links between the concepts, such as the following: