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Tools for Brainstorming

Where to Find Topic Ideas

Need ideas for topics? Here are some ideas of where you might find inspiration:

  • Flip through your textbook or other textbooks for similar courses.
  • What’s going on in the news or social media?
  • Come into the library and browse the front page of newspapers, cover stories on magazines, or books on the new book shelf.
  • Ask people in your life for ideas: your instructor, classmates, friends, family, the library staff.
  • Poke around some of our library resources (databases) that are arranged topically:
  • If none of those approaches work, you might Google “research paper topics” for more inspiration.
  • Think about your personal interests that relate to the course content: your hobbies, family, job, or perhaps a decision you need to make.
  • Here are some prompt ideas for brainstorming your personal interests:
    • Who do you follow or like on social media? Don't forget to look at your YouTube subscriptions and tags that you follow on Twitter or Instagram.  Write them all down on a sheet of paper and see if any themes emerge.
    • What communities do you belong to? You might not realize that you probably identify as being part of a great number of different communities that might inspire topics. Identifying with a community is more than just where you live (although this would be a great community to explore) but also consider things like being a part of the college community, belonging to a church or organization, being a fan of someone or something.  
    • What happens in your daily life? You can brainstorm all the things you do in an average day and see if there are factors that influence your life. This might include your responsibilities at home, factors that affect your job, how much sleep you get (or don't get!) 


Whether you're brainstorming alone or as a team, the key is generate ideas and record those ideas.  Remember the general brainstorming rules:

  • Aim for quantity
  • No wrong answers
  • Weird is okay

You can simply write your ideas in a long list or scatter them around the surface of the page or board.  Don't get too tied into organization at this point, although you can allocate areas on the page for related concepts.  If you prefer a more organized approach to brainstorming you may want to turn your brainstormed ideas into a mind map or concept map (see below).

Here is a sample brainstorm.  The purpose of this brainstorm was to develop a presentation about how libraries contribute to success:

Mind Mapping / Concept Mapping

Mind mapping and concept mapping are very similar to brainstorming, only the information is a bit more organized.  If you performed your brainstorm using post-it notes you can simply move the notes around and group them into general categories to create a mind map.  If you want to think more of terms of creating an outline, then you would place the notes under categories in a hierarchy and create a concept map.  Once you develop a concept map you might start seeing the outline forming for your project.

Here's an image of a brainstormed list turned into more of a mind map:

A more organized and streamlined version is below.  This would be considered a concept map because you can see a hierarchical relationship between concepts.  This concept map was generated using the free online mind mapping tool,  The various colors indicate depth in the outline and the lines indicate relationships to other concepts:



Affinity Map

Another method to consider when organizaing your brainstormed notes is an Affinity Map.  This process is described in the book, Game Storming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers (Gray, Brown, Mancanufo):

  1. Write your question on a large piece of flipchart paper or whiteboard.  Draw some kind of visual to accompany the question.  The question should be one that would generate at least 20 ideas from the participants.
  2. Ask the brainstormers to spend 10 minutes to work silently and write down their ideas independently on index cards or post-it notes.
  3. Collect the ideas and place them on a surface where everyone can see them.
  4. As the brainstormers to identify relationships between the ideas and start moving them around into groups of similar ideas.
  5. Create a parking lot area for any outliers.
  6. If there are several ideas that are pretty much identical, keep them all just cluster them together.
  7. Once you have clusters of ideas, ask the brainstormers for ideas for categories and write them on new cards or post-its.
  8. Place the notes in columns under the suggested categories.
  9. Discuss!

Brainstorming Key Terms and Variations

If you plan to develop an online search strategy, there is still more brainstorming that should take place.  

Take some time to think about your key terms and how they may appear in a database's search results.

Brainstorm your key terms and consider:

  • Synonyms or terms that mean the same thing.  Think of all of the ways the concept may be written about in the literature.
  • Word endings and word variations.  Databases may need you to enter terms using truncation or wildcard characters in order to retrieve these variations.

Develop an online search strategy using appropriate Boolean operators, proximity operators, and truncation / wildcard characters.