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PSY3750: Cognitive Psychology: Your Research Topic

Writing a Psychology Literature Review (University of Washington)

Your Topic

Every great research paper starts with a good topic, but it's not always so easy to come up with one.

While you should always work within the scope of the assignment, these tips can help you find a topic that works for you:

  • Start with something that interests you,
  • Identify keywords in the topic area,
  • Find out what's already been written about the topic,
  • Find an area that hasn't been overly researched,
  • Develop your research question or thesis statement
  • Refine keywords to find the best articles for your topic.

Choosing a Topic

For example: 

If your topic was exploring how cell phones affect social ties, your keywords might include:

  • memory, short-term memory, recall, retention, etc.
  • studying, study habits, study skills, study rewards, mental associations, etc.

You would want to choose those that best define the topic you've chosen, and use them in your database searches.  As you do your preliminary research, you'll find that some keywords work better than others, and maybe even discover some new ones to add to your list!

You might also add a third keyword to your topic that identifies the population that you're interested in, such as college students, teenagers, or Americans, and your keywords might be:

  • college students, undergraduates, female college students, etc.

With this set of terms, you're ready to start your searching.  

Don't worry if you only have 2 keywords, to begin with.  Sometimes you need to do some reading before you are able to pin down a narrower topic.  BUT, if you find that you need 4+ terms to define your research, you may be too focused, and will want to rethink things.

Finally, come up with a research question or thesis statement that you will address in your research:

Research Question:  What study habits are most effective at improving memory of college students?

Thesis Statement:  College students who practice specific study habits (such as memory associations, reading aloud, etc.) improve memory when studying for tests and exams.

Refine your keywords as you search to find the articles that best sum up your research needs... for instance, maybe teenagers would be a better term to use instead of teens.  Or, perhaps memory associations is too specific, and you'll want to look more broadly at study habits.

Tips for Effective Search Strategies

  1. Searching works best when you have a research question in mind. You should be able to identify key concepts related to your research. These concepts form the basis for your search terms.
  2. Know your topic. Exploring general sources (a chapter in your textbook, an encyclopedia article or other background reading) is a good way to start. The better you undestand a topic, the easier it is to evaluate sources.
  3. What is your purpose? You may be writing an argumentative or persuasive paper. Or, your assignment may require you to analyze research on a topic. Perhaps you are developing a slide presentation based on your evaluation of key sources.
  4. Start early. Until you have done some searching and reading, you might not recognize if your topic is too broad or narrow.
  5. Don't wait until the last minute. Good resources may not be available locally. Allow yourself time for an interlibrary loan.
  6. Select resources appropriate  for your topic. Your professor may ask that you use only peer-reviewed journals. Other professors may want you to use a combination of texts and articles, or news sources. Perhaps you will be doing primary research using interviews or observations.

What's a Keyword?

Keywords are simple words or phrases that sum up your topic, and can usually be pulled from your research question.

Simply eliminate those words and concepts that have no meaning, when on their own (How, does, the, etc.), and you're usually left with 2-3 good keywords to use in your research.

To find information on a topic, you would use one or more of your keywords to search for sources (books, media, articles, etc.) in the library's online catalog or databases.