Helping Students Narrow a Project Topic

Narrowing a Project Topic

Everyone has completed a project in school. We may remember our teachers giving us a list of topics to choose from and a rubric that determined the parameters of what we needed to do. In general, projects have not changed much over the last thirty years. During the 2018-2019 school year, most of my middle school colleagues organized projects that involved using a topic list that students could choose from; or, the teachers gave students mandatory topics. I used to do projects like this as well, but I realized that students were not getting much out of them.

The Work Before Topic Selection

When I found the National History Day curriculum, I was excited because it encouraged teachers to let students choose topics that they discover. During my first year of allowing students to choose their own topics, I discovered that they still needed some form of guidance; otherwise I would get a lot of “History of (a sport)” or the “History of my favorite hobby.” Now, there is nothing wrong with students studying the history of their interests, but the research must answer a fundamental question that helps students better understand American history.

I spent time working with students on discovering their own identity, passions, interests, future desires, as well as their role in their local, national, and global community. I spent the first few weeks of school doing activities with students that help them understand who they were and what they were passionate about; if you want more information on how I organized these weeks, check out the articles “Benefits To A Social Studies Curriculum: Discovering Students’ Personalities, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Future Goals” and “The Importance of Historical Themes.”

Allowing Students To Use Their Interests

“I do not want you doing some PowerPoint biography of a famous dead white dude.”

I am not sure when I started saying it, but I said that statement a lot during my years of teaching 8th grade U.S. History. I wanted students to choose historical topics that reflected their interests and concerns, especially if it deviated from the Eurocentric narrative that most Americans are given.

After students completed activities that helped them discover more about their passions and ideas, I would have them complete some discovery assignments that would introduce them to a lot of history at once. First, students were introduced to a Surveying The Narrowed Topic document that asked them questions about what they wanted to learn. Right before students started working on answering the questions, I encouraged them to think about their reflections and ideas from the last two weeks. Students had completed portfolios where they wrote their ideas down and I told them they could use these notes to answer the questions.

Students Begin Exploring (A Lot of) History

The most difficult hurdle of getting students to choose a historical topic is having them comprehend how much history they can choose from. Certain histories are more popular than others, a lot of boys pick military, girls will choose women’s history, and students of color our prown to pick topics that relate to their ethnicity/race. These are all fine choices, but many students have too much of a general idea about history and do not understand how their interests can connect to historical events and people that they did not see before.

There are two activities that students can complete to help them go through a lot of history at once.

Activity 1: Reading through classroom history book 

This activity guides students in how they can use their classroom textbook to search through a lot of history at once. The classroom textbook is useful because they are often organized with large section and subsection titles and it covers the standards the teacher must get through.

Activity 2: Watching Videos to Find Specific Topics 

The second activity has students choose videos that have titles that interest them. Students are expected to watch the videos and write down any event, person, place, or unique idea that they would be interested in exploring in their projects.


After students have gone through these two activities, they go back through their original answers and add more detail to them.

Narrowing The Topic

It may take two to three weeks for students to sufficiently go through different resources, reflect on their own ideas, and incorporate their interests into their topics. Once students have chosen a topic, they must go through the process of narrowing their topic into something manageable. This requires context knowledge of the topic and further thought into what really interests the students.

In order for students to go through the process of narrowing their topic, they can complete topic funnels that help them visualize the narrowing of their ideas. Topic funnel examples can be found at:

  1. The Topic: From Interest to Research Question/Problem
  2. Narrowing Your Topic
  3. Selecting a Topic

Final Thoughts

Narrowing a topic does not come easy, and students will need time in class and teacher cooperation to truly understand how they can narrow their topic down. Always remind students to refer back to their notes about their identities; for information on identity building, see Benefits To A Social Studies Curriculum: Discovering Students’ Personalities, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Future Goals. Ask students, “how can you incorporate your interests into this topic?” Students should be constantly reminded that a boring topic and project happens they give up on trying to make their projects about something they are not interested in.

This lesson is part of the Research Part II: Building a Support System; Finding, Surveying, and Narrowing Topics; Creating Google Searces, and Finding/Evaluation of Secondary Sources. This curriculum map covers days 18 through 35 of my school calendars and helps students choose topics for their National History Day project.

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