Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students don’t know how to do research.

Students can’t balance the depth and breadth of information needed to answer a research question.

Students are not experts. They don’t have knowledge of the whole field or of its boundaries. Therefore, it is hard for them to gauge when a topic has been exhausted, both in breadth and depth. For novices, this is a very hard problem, because it would require them to know what they don’t know. Even when they do realize that the topic is too broad, they might not know how to appropriately scope it down. Conversely, if they realize their topic is too narrow, they might not know how to broaden or modify it productively.


Help students define their research topic

If your objectives include students being able to define the scope of a research topic, this is a skill they must practice, and you can help them by scaffolding it. At one end of the continuum, you could just assign a topic, at the other end you can give students total freedom. Intermediate options include letting students select a topic from a menu, letting them define a topic subject to your approval, giving them deadlines by which to either have enough sources or revise the topic, or suggesting they work with a reference librarian.

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