Skip to main content

University Library

UNIV 150: Freshman Year Experience

Identity and Global Challenges

Decipher your Assignment

Sometimes picking a topic can be one of the hardest things to do. The first step is to make sure you understand exactly what your instructor wants you to do. To help you decipher your assignment, we recommend you pull out your assignment prompt and try to answer 3 questions:

  • Why did the instructor assign this?

You instructor has given you an assignment because they are trying to design your learning experience. If you read the course description, review the assigned readings, and consider the assignment, you may begin to see the plan or purpose of your project, as well as potential topics.

  • What kind of evidence do I need?

There are many kinds of evidence, the type of evidence will work for your assignment can depend on several factors-- the discipline, the parameters of the assignment, and your instructor. Make sure you are clear about the type of evidence you need, because it will be crucial in your research.

  • What are the technical requirements?

Find out elements such as page length and citation format. These facts can give you lots of little hints about approaching your topic. 

For more tips on deciphering assignments, visit University of North Carolina Writing Center's page on Understanding Assignments.

Brainstorm topic ideas

As you are searching for information and learning more about your topic, you will be refining the focus of your topic. You can brainstorm topic ideas using the five Ws:

  • Who: a person, organization, demographic group
  • What: an event, theory, discovery
  • Where: a country, region, defined geographic space
  • When: a time span, century, era
  • Why: description of the significance of this topic

For a quick example, see how to five Ws were used to brainstorm topic ideas related to police brutality below.

Step 1: Brainstorm Ideas. Choose a couple Ws to focus on, and make quick lists of things you might research. In thinking about police brutality, we chose Who, What, Where, and When

What When Where Who
Excessive Force Civil rights movement Baltimore African Americans
Misconduct 1960 Chicago Immigrants
Unlawful arrest 20th century LA Convicts
Gun violence 2013-2018 (a range of years) Great Britain Children
Body cameras   North America Women
Education     Prisoners
Ensuing Riots      

Step 2: Put them together

Add your brainstormed ideas together, integrate the WHY these topics interest you, and you have a researchable topic!

Ensuing Riots + 20th century + LA + African Americans + Significance =

How did the 1992 Los Angeles Riots affect relations between police and the African American community?

REMEMBER: It is important to keep your research topic open-ended. As you perform your research, you will inevitably refine or narrow your topic.