The Writing Center

WAC Complain About Topics


One professor mentioned a problem that I think many instructors face, and that is the poor choice of a topic for the WAC paper. The topics chosen are

  • too general (e.g. social security)
  • not interesting to prof or student
  • easy to research in that much is written.

Papers on such general and uninspiring topics often lead to difficult grading. Students rarely learn great research skills from such topics. It's hard for many of them to grasp which sources are excellent and which are simply easiest to use.

How do you combat such temptations? On the reverse side of this sheet of paper there is a handout you might copy for your students or adapt for your own particular class. Here are the educational principles behind the handout on the reverse side:

The Best Quality Learning Comes from Inquiry

Jerome Bruner along with psychologist Leon Festinger would say that inquiry is the best base for learning. When we have an inner question—that's when we want to learn the answer. In a WAC course, we can change the topic to a question. One technique many college professors enjoy is to pass out index cards and ask students to write their research questions on the card. Then they can collect the cards and quickly comment on the questions. Students rarely know the fields of study at advanced levels and your expertise would really help them begin an excellent project.

Principles of Adult Learning

Adults need to choose what they wish to research and they need to see it as relevant to some aspect of their lives or careers. The most important issue for college professors is to widen students' range of choices—especially in courses where students know little of the academic terrain. Showing them what excites you and other scholars—and how this knowledge is applied—is vital.


Totally indulge yourself in the most interesting QUESTION (not topic) to begin a research paper. If you ask a QUESTION, you will know when you are finished! If you ask a question you really want to understand, you'll do far better research than if someone else had chosen a topic for you. Pick something relevant too. Asking a great research question is a very important skill—something to master.

Recurring Thoughts

Material from your class can keep popping up in your head as you walk around campus or go about your daily routine. Pay attention to these recurring thoughts: they might be showing you something that would be good to study for your paper.


Sometimes reading materials create a variety of emotions: sometimes you are irritated, excited, challenged by things you read. If you have a strong emotion regarding some of the materials or a particular subject, that might be a good place to start your research.

Previous Experience

Having had some experience with the topic usually helps adults do better research. Can you link something in your work or study experience with this research assignment?

Starting Point Exercise

If none of the above fit, you might try creating 2 columns like this:

My Values and Expectations The Book/Articles

Then brainstorm for several lines until you see a clash between the 2 columns. This clash is where the interesting material is. ASK A QUESTION you DON'T KNOW THE ANSWER TO. That's the key to beginning a great research paper.

Question Checklist

Once you have a QUESTION, not a topic, use this checklist:

  • is it challenging to you, interesting?
  • will the answer fit the page length?
  • does it use the materials (as opposed to veering away from them)?
Ask Your Professor's Advice

Show the question to your professor who can help you limit or refine it. Or come to the Writing Center, MC 321, and we will help you limit and refine it (but your prof is better than we are!).


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