Finding, Surveying, and Focusing Topics

Allowing students to select topics for a history project can lead them to feel empowered, which results in highly motivated participation. The power of student choice and interest is key in creating a positive learning environment. This does not mean student choice comes with no fallbacks; often times, students will choose historical topics that are too broad, or worse, they will have no idea of what to choose. The American education system does not allow for a great deal of choice inside and outside the classroom, therefore students have been conditioned to let adults make decisions for them.

Students may be a little rusty when making choices, but with some help, they we will be able to succeed. Below are some strategies and tools that will help students find historical topics and narrow their interest.

Topic Selection Tool and Ideas for Short Projects

Depending on how much time you have, you may not be able to go deep into topic selection and will need to keep things simple. Even if spending days or weeks on narrowing topics is not possible, it is still beneficial to help students focus their ideas by giving them a class or two to think. Ask students to write down what they are interested in and some preliminary topic ideas. Having both interests and ideas next to each other can help students and the teacher form some historical topics.

For example, if a student is interested in a career in medicine, then they may be interested in historical topics that focus on innovations in medicine or the consequences of disease. The

National History Day Topic Selection Worksheet is a simple tool that can help students begin to focus on their ideas. Although it is designed for National History Day, it can be rewritten to fit any project.

I have had students interested in medicine for their future careers. Due to their interest, they studied Louis May Alcott because of her work as a Civil War nurse.

Topic Selection for Longer Projects

If time allows, students should be able to brainstorm, find, and narrow topics over the course of weeks. Most students will not be familiar with the historical time periods that fit within their history class, and nearly all of them have developed as learners in institutions that do not allow student choice or interest to affect the curriculum; therefore, it is imperative that teachers allow students time to explore. The teacher must be patient and allow interests and desires to develop naturally alongside of topic discovery. The advice in this section can be put into practice by using the Selecting A Topic Guide.

Topic funnels are excellent ways to help students narrow their focus.

Students can begin by brainstorming what type of topics they like. All human beings have some kind of interest, and the teacher can use tools to help categorize those interests.

A student may be religiously devout and want to know more about the history of their particular faith.

Another student may have a mother that is a police officer and they want to follow in their parent’s footsteps. Such a student could be directed to social issues that pertain to police, or notable crimes that affected society.

Once students have chosen a topic based on their interests and/or desires, they will need to begin a process of narrowing that topic. Topic funnels are helpful visual representations that can allow students to narrow their ideas. Ask students to draw a topic funnel and then have them begin some secondary reading of their topic. As the students read, they can begin narrowing their topic down based on their new findings. Additionally, the teacher can use a theme that the students have to consider in order to give students more ways to narrow their topic ideas. National History Day uses such themes, such as “Triumph and Tragedy,” “Exploration and Migration,” and “Breaking Barriers.”

Continued Ways To Narrow A Topic

Over the last six years of teaching, I have noticed that students tend to choose modern and/or national topics when allowed to select the subject of their project. This is most likely because of the frequency they hear about the topic. This is not inherently bad, but as history teachers we must ensure students see how the past and their own local communities are connected.

Both the “Modern to Past” Narrowing Topic Worksheet and the “National to Local” Narrowing Topic Worksheet can help students narrow their macro-focus to something closer to home and deeper into the past. Since local history has a minimal presence in schools, the teacher will need to be creative with how students find information. One idea is that students can take their list of interests and topics to their parents, other teachers, and older members of the community to see if they know of any local history. Student interests could also be sent to local and state museums, historical societies, and historians to gain more insight into possible connections.


Along with the diversity of project topics, allowing for student choice and narrowing topics is difficult because the teacher will not be knowledgeable in many of the areas that students choose. This is fine to admit and a good lesson for a history teacher to share with students. A person who utilizes historical thinking skills does not need to be an expert of a topic because their skills allow them to become one. As a history teacher, be an example of what it means to be comfortable with the unknown and give the students choice.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *