In order to avoid "report" writing, students need to move from their topic to a controversial issue inherent in the topic. At this point, students should be reading initial sources about their topics to begin to identify the controversial issues within or surrounding the topic. (You may assign them, for example, to find two provocative sources about their topic. For more information, see Searching for Sources.) They can arrive at an issue by posing a question about their topic.
The following are some guidelines you can give your students to help them come to the kind of question that will inspire their research and critical thinking:
After identifying your topic, the next step in developing your project is to locate an issue within that topic. The issue you identify will generally represent something that interests, puzzles or surprises you within the larger domain of the topic you have been exploring.
Now you need to pose a question that will help you understand that interesting, puzzling or surprising phenomenon. At this point, you can really let loose with all your creativity and imagination. Bear in mind that the more complex your question, the more you'll discover in seeking to answer it.
The question should meet the following criteria:
- It should, generally, ask us to determine relationships (frequently cause and effect relationships) that cannot be directly observed; that is, it should generally ask "why" or "how," rather than "when" or "who."
- It should be precise enough to allow an approximation of an answer and yet open enough not to predetermine its answer.
- It should identify or articulate a controversy about which reasonable people will disagree; that is, it will engage you in an intellectual "conversation" with scholars who are writing and thinking about your issue and who are not all arriving at the same answer.
- It should be complicated enough that it cannot be answered directly, but open to multiple "good" answers. (Your job will be to come up the with answer that offer the best, fullest explanation of the phenomenon you are exploring.)
The more you read about and think about your issue, the more questions you will discover.
You've already developed some familiarity with the issue you've chosen through some initial searches. In order to decide on a question, you need to begin looking at specialized materials that examine your issue from the perspectives of different disciplines. In other words, you will need to turn to scholarly material, trade publications and government documents.