Who is this guide for?
We think this guide will be most useful to first- and second-year students.
1. Understanding your assignment
We know this is an obvious first step, but here are a few questions to ask yourself as you read through the assignment:
How much choice do you have in choosing your topic? Does your professor want you to choose from a list of existing topics or do you have the freedom to write about what you'd like?
What does your professor want you to do with your topic? Look for "action" words like compare, contrast, evaluate, analyze, etc.
Does your professor require you to use resources other than your course readings? Do they have requirements about what kind of resources you should use (ex. 5 scholarly journal articles)?
Is there anything in the assignment you don't understand? If so, ask your professor about it. You never know - half your class might have the same question!
2. Coming Up With Ideas
Start by thinking about what you've learned in this class so far - look over your notes, chat with your classmates about lectures, etc.
Visit the Writing Center - their tutors can help you brainstorm!
Take what you know a step further by organizing that knowledge in a structure that makes sense to you. This could be something like an outline or a concept map. This process may help you see new connections between topics.
Is there something you're passionate about? Something you're confused by? Something you want to know more about? These can all be good questions to ask, in order to help you find a topic you're actually interested in.
As you come up with ideas, make note of what seems important or interesting to you! You may want to do a bit of "pre-research" (look at Wikipedia or library resources) to see if there's enough there for your assignment.
3. Narrowing It Down
If you have a broad topic, here are a few questions you can ask to help break it down. You don't have to answer all of these questions in one paper!
Who? (It may help to focus on groups of people - ex. astronauts.)
- Who was involved? How?
- Who was affected? How?
- Who benefited? How?
- Who paid for it?
- What problems were solved? How?
- What problems still exist? What solutions have been tried?
- What were the effects? On who? On what (ex. a particular location, the environment, etc.)?
- If there's only one location, is there anything significant about it? Climate, access to water, etc.?
- If there are multiple locations, do you want to focus on one in particular (ex. perceptions of the Cold War in the Pacific Northwest)?
- If it's a specific event, is there anything significant about the timing? Did something happen as a cause of or a result of another event?
- If it's ongoing, do you want to focus on a particular timeframe? (ex. racism in the U.S. in the 2010s)
- What were their/our motives?
Things To Look For
You can also refine your topic by looking for:
Ex. Similar issues to overcome between the 1969 moon mission and the planned 2009 Mars Mission
Ex. American pro and con opinions about the first mission to the moon
Ex. Protest or patriotism: different opinions about cost vs. benefit of the moon mission)
Ex. the NASA family: from the scientists on earth to the astronauts in the sky
- Anthropomorphisms: interpreting reality in terms of human values
Ex. Space: the final frontier
- Personifications: giving objects or descriptions human qualities
Ex. The eagle has landed: Animal symbols and metaphors in the space program
Ex. More missions to the moon: Pro and Con American attitudes to landing more astronauts on the moon
(This is called the SOCRAPR method. Yes, really.)
Tip: Don't feel like you have to stick with only one of these - you may come up with a really great topic by combining two or more questions or ideas!
Content in this section is adapted from:
Example topics under Things To Look For heading are verbatim from the Lumen adaptation.
Their adaptation is based on:
This adaptation is provided by SUNY Oswego, Penfield Library under a CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
4. Developing A Thesis
By this point, you've probably narrowed down your topic...
- If your assignment does require research,
- It's best to read and absorb that research before coming up with your thesis.
- Be aware your topic may change (a little or a lot) as you research. This is totally normal.
- If your assignment does not requires research, continue reading.
Creating Your Thesis
There are a few main ideas to keep in mind when formulating your thesis:
- It should be arguable - you're stating a position that someone might agree or disagree with, based on the evidence you provide in your paper.
- It should be a specific as possible, so that you can argue effectively. You'd likely have difficulty finding evidence that everyone in the world loves dogs, but you might be able to argue that dogs are popular in a particular city or state.
- It should be compelling or interesting - you don't want to leave your professor (or yourself!) wondering, "So what? Why should I care about this?"
Here are a few potential templates you can use to form your thesis:
Andrea Scott (2018) has provided two more thesis "templates" and examples:
Content in this section is from:
Formulating a Thesis. Provided by Andrea Scott, Writing Commons under a CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.
Most content is paraphrased from the source; direct quotations are indicated in text.
The footnote referenced in the first direct quotation reads, " Adapted from Erik Simpson’s 'Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis' at https://www.math.grinnell.edu/~simpsone/Teaching/fiveways.html."