Skip to Main Content

American History 148

Things to Consider When Choosing a Topic

The most important element in choosing a topic for an history class is to make sure that you can remain interested in the topic. Start by listing subjects, time periods, scenarios that interest you. Then consider whether or not you might want to focus on an individual, a singular event, a movement that crossed several eras, or some other aspect of the past. You might also consider what kinds of sources interest you—personal correspondence or diaries? Political speeches? Videos? Scientific treatises? Maps? Advertisements? 

Consider: What would you like to know? Brainstorm with many questions. Perhaps you might start with:

  • An event (a strike, an invention, a battle, a treaty, a new law): what was the cause? Who was responsible? Why him/her? Why did it happen when it did? Can I compare it to some similar event, and thereby evaluate what was unique about this cause/outcome?
  • An on-going trend (protests, women smoking, anti-tobacco movement): what was it like for people involved in this trend? Why did they make the choices they did? Why not other ones? How did they choose to participate?
  • Individual’s or groups’ motivations and responses – what motivated an individual? How did others understand an event or a remarkable individual? What led a group to organize?

Content adapted from How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Refine Your Topic

In the study of history, perspective is everything. A letter written by a twenty- year old Vietnam War protestor will differ greatly from a letter written by a scholar of protest movements. Although the sentiment might be the same, the perspective and influences of these two authors will be worlds apart. Practicing the "5 Ws" will avoid the confusion of the authority trap.

Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s 

Historians accumulate evidence (information, including facts, stories, interpretations, opinions, statements, reports, etc.) from a variety of sources (primary and secondary). They must also verify that certain key pieces of information are corroborated by a number of people and sources ("the predonderance of evidence"). The historian poses the "5 Ws" to every piece of information he examines: Who is the historical actor? When did the event take place? Where did it occur? What did it entail and why did it happen the way it did?

The "5 Ws" can also be used to evaluate a primary source. Who authored the work? When was it created? Where was it created, published, and disseminated? Why was it written (the intended audience), and what is the document about (what points is the author making)? If you know the answers to these five questions, you can analyze any document, and any primary source. The historian doesn't look for the truth, since this presumes there is only one true story. The historian tries to understand a number of competing viewpoints to form his or her own interpretation-- what constitutes the best explanation of what happened and why.

By using as wide a range of primary source documents and secondary sources as possible, you will add depth and richness to your historical analysis. The more exposure you, the researcher, have to a number of different sources and differing view points, the more you have a balanced and complete view about a topic in history. This view will spark more questions and ultimately lead you into the quest to unravel more clues about your topic. You are ready to start assembling information for your research paper.


More 5 W's Suggestions:

Try asking yourself the 5 W's: Who, What, When, Where, Why and add in How? as a bonus!

  • Who
    • Who is involved? Whom does it affect? Do you want to focus on a specific population or group?
  • What
    • What are you focused on? What is the issue or problem? and in your paper always address So What? 
  • When
    • When did this topic originate? What is happening now? Do you want to focus on a specific time period?
  • Where
    • Where did important events occur? Where are you focused?
  • Why
    • Why is this topic important? Why are you interested in it? Why should it matter to others?
  • How
    • How would or could things be different?  How has something had impact on....?

Start thinking about what specifically you want to investigate or argue.

Tip: It is okay to have multiple ideas or directions you wish to pursue. Make sure you keep an open mind and are willing and able to modify your topic as you continue researching.

Develop Your Research Question

 How do I turn my research topic into a research question?

After choosing and pre-searching your topic, it is time to develop a good research question - the "BIG" or "ESSENTIAL" question that drives your research.

Don't forget the "So what?" factor.  The "BIG" / "Essential" question focuses on the great, important aspects of your topic.

Research questions differ from thesis statements in that a thesis statement includes an answer, whereas a research question leaves room for discovery.  Starting with a question allows you to explore your topic more openly and evenly while still maintaining focus. 

Creating a "BIG" QUESTION based on your topic helps you to:

  • begin thinking more deeply about your topic
  • guide your search for information
  • stay relevant to your topic

The "SMALL" QUESTIONS that develop out of the "BIG" QUESTION helps you to:

  • think about who, what, where, when, why, how, etc.
  • brainstorm the subtopic areas you might address in answering the "BIG" QUESTION




  • Needs information from sources other than yourself
  • You can find reputable information sources to help you answer it
  • Is not too broad (so general that it you would have to write a book to answer it)
  • Is not too narrow (so specific that it doesn’t allow for much exploration and you only have enough material to write a few paragraphs about it)



(from George Mason University Writing Center (Links to an external site.))

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts



(from George Mason University Writing Center (Links to an external site.))

Unclear: How should social networking sites address the harm they cause?
Clear: What action should social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook take to protect users’ personal information and privacy?

The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites might be causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of potential harm (privacy issues), and who may be experiencing that harm (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: What is the most significant effect of glacial melting on the lives of penguins in Antarctica?

The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific effect of global warming (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific animal that is affected (penguins). It also requires the writer to take a stance on which effect has the greatest impact on the affected animal. When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex:  What main environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors predict whether Americans will develop diabetes, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.


(from George Washington University LibGuides (Links to an external site.))

Too Broad

    • How is malaria treated?
    • Will tablet computing replace the need for laptops?

Too Narrow

    • How much has the popularity of Harry Potter improved the reading scores of second graders in Missouri?
    • At what point in time will the need for nurses in pedatric wards outpace the graduation rates from nursing schools?

Just right

    • In what ways have online communities changed the nature of support systems available for people with Attention Deficit Disorder?
    • How has mountaintop removal mining in western Kentucky impacted the migratory habits of the local bird population?

(from Shona McCombes (Links to an external site.))

Research question


·       What effect does social media have on people’s minds?

·       What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of under-16s?

·       The first question is not specific enough: what type of social media? Which people? What kind of effects?

·       The second question defines its concepts more clearly. It is researchable through qualitative and quantitative data collection.

·       Why is there a housing crisis in the Netherlands?

·       What impact have university internationalisation policies had on the availability and affordability of housing in the Netherlands?

·       Starting with “why” often means that your question is not focused enough: there are too many possible answers and no clear starting point for research. By targeting just one aspect of the problem and using more specific terms.

·       The second question offers a clear path to finding an answer.

·       Does the US or the UK have a better healthcare system?

·       How do the US and the UK compare in health outcomes and patient satisfaction among low-income people with chronic illnesses?

·       The first question is too broad and overly subjective: there’s no clear criteria for what counts as “better”.

·       The second question is much more researchable. It uses clearly defined terms and narrows its focus to a specific population.

·       What should political parties do about low voter turnout in region X?

·       What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing voter turnout among under-30s in region X?

·       Regarding the first question, it is generally not feasible for academic research to answer broad questions about “what should be done”.

·       The second question is more specific, and aims to gain an understanding of possible solutions in order to make informed recommendations.

·       Has there been an increase in homelessness in San Francisco in the past ten years?

·       How have economic, political and social factors affected patterns of homelessness in San Francisco over the past ten years?

·       The first question is too simple: it can be answered with a simple yes or no.

·       The second question is more complex, requiring in-depth investigation and the development of an original argument.

·       What factors led to women gaining the right to vote in the UK in 1918?

·       How did Irish women perceive and relate to the British women’s suffrage movement?

·       The first question is too broad and not very original. It has been extensively researched by historians, and it would be very difficult to contribute new knowledge.

·       The second question identifies an underexplored aspect of the topic that requires investigation and discussion of various primary and secondary sources to answer.

·       How can sexual health services and LGBT support services in district X be improved?

·       How can sexual health clinics in district X develop their services and communications to be more LGBT-inclusive?

·       The first question is not focused enough: it tries to address two different practical problems (the quality of sexual health services and LGBT support services). Even though the two issues are related, it’s not clear how the research will bring them together.

·       The second integrates the two problems into one focused, specific question.

·       Where do the majority of immigrants to Germany come from?

·       What are the similarities and differences in the experiences of recent Turkish, Polish and Syrian immigrants in Berlin?

·       The first question is too simple, asking for a straightforward fact that can be easily found online.

·       The second is a more complex comparative question that requires data collection and detailed discussion to answer.

·       How is race represented in Shakespeare’s Othello?

·       How have modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s Othello dealt with the theme of racism through casting, staging and allusion to contemporary events?

·       The first question is not original or relevant — it has been answered so many times that it would be very difficult to contribute anything new.

·       The second question takes a specific angle with scope to make an original argument, and has more relevance to current social concerns and debates.

·       How can drunk driving be prevented?

·       What effect do different legal approaches have on the number of people who drive after drinking in European countries?

·       The first question asks for a ready-made solution, and is not focused or researchable.

·       The second question is a clearer comparative question, but note that it may not be practically feasible. For a smaller research project or thesis, it could be narrowed down further to focus on the effectiveness of drunk driving laws in just one or two countries.