Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsCHRIS: For most researchers, the process of coming up with a hypothesis or a title for their research project is one of narrowing down their focus. The most common place to start is by selecting a particular subject. The advantage of this is not only are you picking something you're interested in, but also, it allows you to know roughly the shape and direction your project's going to take. For example, if we chose the study of history, we would know that our research project would primarily be about the study of primary documents relating to an event from the past. Once you have your subject, you need to identify a theme within that subject. And within that theme, try to pick a particular context.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsNow I, for example, explore terrorism and counterterrorism. So I might pick something like exploring counterterrorism under President Clinton. Now the issue here, however, is that that gives me eight years of American history and every single counterterrorism policy. So this is still too broad, really, for a research project. We need to identify a topic within this context. Now ideally, you want to pick a topic that's going to give you access to evidence and information and that's going to introduce some sort of question or debate that you're going to be able to engage with. So something like, looking at the use of lethal force against Al Qaeda would serve this purpose.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 secondsThe next stage is to begin writing research questions. Now, these are going to be your preliminary investigations which, on one hand, are going to let you know whether or not your project is viable. And, hopefully, assuming it is, these are also going to be those first investigations which gather up the evidence which will allow you to write your draft hypothesis or title. Now coming up with a good hypothesis or title is a difficult thing. It needs to be broad enough to give you the scope to explore, but narrow enough to be manageable.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 secondsTry to come up with something that asks a clear question that your project can answer or sets up a discussion or debate that you can engage with and explore. Now it's not always the case that research projects are about narrowing down a focus. Sometimes, some researchers begin with a clear idea of the topic already. They know what they want to explore. But in these instances, you can't just go straight on to writing up your research questions or your draft hypothesis because you don't yet know what approach or methodology you're using because you haven't actually identified a subject.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 secondsIn these instances, you need to work backwards, broadening out your focus to identify what subject it is that your project actually falls under. Identify the context your topic is within, the theme that falls under, and then pick a suitable subject to engage with that theme. In this case, for example, sociology is a very good subject for dealing with educational issues. Once you know what subject your project falls under, then you can move on to drafting up those research questions, undertaking that initial preliminary research, and then using that evidence to draft your hypothesis or title.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 secondsNow if at any stage through this process, you decide that you need to change direction, or perhaps you need to change the title or the topic or the theme that you're looking at, that isn't a problem. And that's not that unusual at the early stages of research. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that you should keep track of any changes you make and explain in a learning or a research log, why those changes have occurred. Reflect upon how you changed your mind, what problems came up, and how you addressed them. And later on, those reflections will worth marks, just like the end product essay.

Exercise: creating a draft hypothesis and initial research questions

Coming up with a good hypothesis is a difficult thing. It must be broad enough to give you scope to explore, but narrow enough to be manageable.

In this animation with voiceover Chris illustrates, with practical examples, how you can approach narrowing down your focus if your theme is too broad or broadening out your focus if you have a clear idea of the topic but haven’t necessarily identified which subject(s) it relates to.


After having watched the animation, download a blank version of the template used and have a go at filling it in. Whether you are narrowing down or broadening your focus you should fill in all of the sections. Ultimately you will be using this information as a basis for your draft research proposal.

  • Subject

  • Theme

  • Context

  • Topic

  • Research questions

  • Draft hypothesis

Note: Don’t forget to reflect upon the process and capture your thoughts in your learning / research log.

How did you get on? did you need to narrow down or broaden out your focus?

Do share your experience in the comments below. Don’t forget to look at other learners’ comments. If you can relate to a comment someone else has made, why not ‘Like’ it or leave a reply?

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Developing Your Research Project

University of Southampton

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