Easy Way to Find Fresh Research Paper Topics

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Oct 20, 2015 11:32:42 PM

Finding Ideas for Research Papers.jpgWhen research paper season comes around, I struggle with more than the paper load and the process (which I wrote about here). I also struggle with finding fresh topics.  I am a fan of letting students pick topics within boundaries, but I am decidedly not a fan of reading the same trite selections over and over.  Last week, while I was listening to This American Life in my car, I was struck with how perfect this NPR show is as a farming ground for engaging research topics.

Finding Ideas for Research Papers.jpg


Here's why I think starting from This American Life's website is an easy and effective way to find fresh topics:

  • There are 570 shows on a variety of topics, so there is bound to be something in there that all students can engage with.
  • The producers take interesting spins on topics, which allow students to see research and informational texts in a new light, hopefully pushing them to think critically about the presentation of their own research.
  • The show is updated weekly, so topics remain relevant and current.
  • There are lists of favorite shows and a search option to help it be less overwhelming.
  • I think listening to these types of programs is a good life long habit.  For me, they not only entertain, but they also keep me thinking about things that I may otherwise ignored and they always give me something to talk about at the dinner table or social event.
  • The show has a lot of potential for developing vocabulary and eloquent turns of phrase for students.

Now that I have told you the why, here's an idea for the how:

  • Introduce students to This American Life's website.  Show them with the projector how to search, browse, and see the staff's favorite episodes.
  • Assign students to find a show of interest. (Note: shows are broken into Acts, so students may find an Act that they are interested in or a whole show of 3+ Acts). After they have picked a show, they should talk or write about the show in some way like, a group talk, homework written assignment, online chat forum, etc.
  • From that show, guide students into asking an appropriate research question.  What compelled them?  What would they like to know more about?  Are there reliable sources available for that question?
  • Once students have inquiry questions, proceed with your normal process of teaching the research paper. (Don't forget about cool resources like Scrible!)

After the why and the how, here are a few examples of topics I think would lead to great inquiries for a research paper (Click link to hear the show):

  1. The Education Gap:
    1. Three Miles: "There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better."
  2. American Prison System:
    1. Lockup: "With the number of prisoners in the United States rising rapidly, we present stories of their lives and the lives of their families and children."
    2. Act V: "Over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet."
  3. Grief Programs (for children or in general)
    1. About that Farm Upstate: "While it’s hard to explain to kids how babies come into the world, it might be harder to explain that people leave the world too — especially to a kid whose mom or dad or brother or sister has died. There are grief counseling centers all over the U.S. that cater specifically to children. Reporter Jonathan Goldstein visited one in Salt Lake City."
  4. The Psychopath Test:
    1. The Psuchopath Test: "Recently we heard about this test that could determine if someone was a psychopath. So, naturally, our staff decided to take it. This week we hear the results. Plus Jon Ronson asks the question: is this man a psychopath?"
  5. Impact of major brands:
    1. The Coca-cola Company: "The formula for Coca-Cola is one of the most jealously guarded trade secrets in the world. So we were surprised to come across a 1979 newspaper article with what looked like the original recipe for Coke. Talking to historian Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola, we were even more surprised when we found reasons to believe the recipe is real."
  6. American Auto Industry:
    1. Nummi: "A car plant in Fremont California that might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: How it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. Frank Langfitt explains why GM didn't learn the lessons—until it was too late."
  7. Muslims in America:
    1. Shouting Across the Divide: "A Muslim woman persuades her husband that their family would be happier if they left the West Bank and moved to America. They do, and things are good...until September 11. After that, the elementary school their daughter goes to begins using a textbook that says Muslims want to kill Christians."
  8. Race and Politics:
    1. Harold: "A parable of politics and race in America. The story of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, told two decades after his death. Washington died on November 25, 1987."
  9. Police:
    1. Cops See It Differently Part 1 and Part 2: "There are so many cops who look at the killing of Eric Garner or Mike Brown and say race didn't play a factor. And there are tons of black people who say that's insane. There's a division between people who distrust the police — even fear them — and people who see cops as a force for good. Stories of people living on both sides of that divide, and people trying to bridge it."
  10. Hurricane Katrina:
    1. Lower 9+10: "Katrina bus tours go all over New Orleans, but it’s illegal for them to go into the Lower 9th Ward, the area that's been the slowest to rebuild. This week we go around talking to residents there about what matters the most to them (and what doesn't) ten years after the hurricane."

What do you think?  Would you use this idea to farm research paper questions?  We'd love your feedback in the comment section below.

Topics: Essays, research, research paper, tips, topics, Writing

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