Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Narrowing and tweaking topics: two strategies

Time to resurrect this instruction blog. You know the drill: time got away from us, we got busy actually doing the instruction, you have time to do it or write about it. Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let's get down to business.

Selecting and narrowing (or focusing) topics is one of those tricky skills for students. They often think that this is the easy part, but more and more I see students really struggle to accomplish this task.

In many of our upper-level classes, our institution uses construction of a research question to help students narrow a topic. But if you haven't done it before, research questions can be a tough concept to grasp.

I started bringing concept maps back into my teaching in the last year. But I realized once I attempted it in a few classes that concept maps are only really helpful when the student has a good grasp of the topic. This isn't usually true in many intro level classes. They haven't done the research yet, so they know very little about their topic, or they end up with really generic concept maps.

What do you do with students who know little about their topic? Or have instructor assigned topics? Or just picked a topic out of the textbook? I tried a technique using everyone's favorite question words. I had students write at least 2 questions that started with each of the 5 W's & an H. Even if they don't know much, it forces them to approach the topic from a few different angles. After doing this once, I adapted the directions to allow for questions that didn't start with the question word, but answered it. For example, "Who reads?" is not a terribly helpful question, but "Do men or women read more?" gets at the same Who question without actually starting with the word.

What I really liked about this activity was that the Why and How questions can quite easily be turned into research questions. Those get at the connecting of ideas instead of just reporting back findings. In the class I did both these activities with the whole class. Afterwards I had each student pick a topic to put on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it to the front of the room. Then I had them pick up one, uncrumple it and then add 2 items to it. If they knew the topic well, add 2 spokes of the concept map. If they were less familiar, add two "question word questions." Then crumple it back up and throw it back to the front. The next round was the same, only they could build off of what the previous person had written too. We did this 3 times. By the end, they had a fairly complex concept map or quite a few questions to build off.

I don't always get that much time with students that early in the process so I created this infographic to work into my LibGuides for other classes. I'm excited to see how it goes.


  1. I wonder whether it makes sense to have students read in general sources about a topic before they try to generate questions at all, keeping an "I wonder…" list at hand as they read. Then generate those questions based on their "wonders"

  2. I like that idea too! In this case I was looking for an activity to do in class before they'd done any reading, but for an upcoming class I'm working with, that question is built into a series of worksheets they're doing.