Does this scenario sound familiar? The semester is in full swing, you feel like you’re operating at maximum capacity just trying to get through the required reading for the week. Then, a new bombshell hits. Your professor asks you to submit a final paper topic proposal. You barely have time to think, and now you have to make a decision that will determine the fate of the rest of your semester? Choosing a topic for a research paper can feel daunting, especially when you’re already feeling overwhelmed by other coursework. Where do you start? What if you choose a topic you’ll later regret?
Don’t fret. I am going to discuss some of the secrets for selecting the best research paper topics for you. But, before I can disclose these secrets, we first must look a little more closely into the concept of learning transfer. Wait. You thought I was just going to provide you with some oversimplified list of tips? Nope. Before you can understand how to select a topic, understanding the learning transfer concept is a must.
Conveniently, three researchers at Colorado State University published a special edition journal on just this topic. These researchers—Leann M. R. Kaiser, Karen Kaminski, and Jeffrey M. Foley—may even be familiar to you if you have ever taken online courses in Adult Education and Training at CSU. One of the contributors to this journal defines learning transfer as “applying previously learned knowledge with various degrees of adaptation or modification of that knowledge in completing a task or solving problems” (Hung, 2013, p. 27). Let’s unpack that definition a little further to better understand the learning transfer concept and how it might be helpful to selecting your topic.
“Applying previously learned knowledge…”
Most likely, you are required to draw upon some knowledge that you have gained in your class to produce some final product. Inherent within the learning transfer concept, then, is the role of knowledge. However, it is important to recognize that we can gain knowledge from a whole variety of settings. While formal education institutions are important learning centers, we also gain knowledge from nonformal and informal settings as well (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Nonformal education occurs outside of formal learning institutions, is typically local and community-based, and is usually voluntary. For example, religious institutions, the mass media, your local Kiwanis club, and cultural organizations are all examples of nonformal education settings. In addition, learning can also occur in informal education settings. Indeed, 90 percent of adults participate in some type of informal learning (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). This type of learning is spontaneous and unstructured; for example, your self-directed pursuit of learning how to build a deck or your conversation with a friend about appropriate disciplinary methods for your children are all types of informal learning activities. This brings us, then, to my first tip for selecting a paper topic:
Tip #1: Draw from knowledge that you have gained in a variety of settings when choosing a topic for a research paper. Do not feel limited to only what you have learned in your course (unless, of course, you are instructed to do so).
“…with various degrees of adaptation or modification of that knowledge…”
Although it may be interesting, knowledge often seems useless until it can be applied within some practical setting. For that application to occur, most likely you will need to modify what you are learning to varying degrees to make it useful. Take a moment to reflect upon what you have learned so far in your course. Look ahead in your syllabus to see what you will be learning next. Are any of the skills or topics particularly relevant to your interests?
After reflecting upon any potential areas of relevance, reflect again, but this time upon your goals. Why are you enrolled in this course? Where do you plan on being in five years? In ten years? Do not feel limited to solely professional work goals here. Where would you like to be spiritually? Personally? Emotionally? Physically?
Now that you have reflected upon what you have learned/are going to learn in this course and your goals, try to find any points of connection between these two reflections. For example, say you are enrolled in an interpersonal communication course and you find social penetration theory particularly interesting. This theory suggests that our interpersonal communication goes from shallow to intimate the more we disclose information about ourselves to others (Altman & Taylor, 1973). As you reflect on your goals, you realize that you would like to be in a committed relationship within the next few years. You decide to complete your paper on the topic of romantic relationship development so you can better understand this process and, ultimately, be more successful in your personal relationship goals.
This illustration is a good example of near transfer. In near transfer, we apply what we learned in one setting to an identical or nearly identical environment (Kaminski, Foley, & Kaiser, 2013). In this example, you gained knowledge about a relational theory with the goal of applying it within a similar relational context. Little to no adaptation of the knowledge, other than personally applying its principles to you, was necessary. This brings us, then, to my second tip:
Tip #2: Complete your paper on a point of connection between what you have learned/are going to learn in this course and your goals.
“…when completing a task or solving problems.”
Although less obvious, there may also be systematic points of connection between the project requirements and your future goals. While the topic you have to write about may not be at all relevant to your future goals, the process of completing it may enable you to complete a future task or problem more effectively. Reflect upon the skills that you will need to accomplish your goals. Organizational skills, writing, speaking, listening, memorization, analytical skills, collaborating, attention to detail, critical thinking, editing, initiating, leading, managing, multi-tasking, planning, reading, teaching, and time management are all examples of skills that may be relevant to your future goals. Be thoughtful here.
Applying previously learned knowledge to an entirely different situation is referred to as far transfer. In far transfer, the original learning situation and the applied situation are very dissimilar (Foley & Kaiser, 2013). Indeed, these two situations may be so dissimilar that it may be difficult to see points of connection between the two (Detterman, 1993). This might mean that you need to ask others to help you find these points of connection. Ask your family, friends, and coworkers for their thoughts on the similarities between your coursework and your goals. Perhaps even interview someone who exemplifies who you want to be in the future for advice. Once you have found those points of connection, focus your project upon developing these skills. For example, your goal is to become a preschool teacher, and you never expect to need to do research on say, economics, in your career. After talking with your cousin who is a teacher about the points of connection, you realize that developing a research paper and working as a teacher both require excellent organizational skills. You decide to focus upon excellent organization as you develop the paper. Although writing an economics research paper may appear useless to you in the grand scheme of life, by focusing upon these points of connection, you are able to develop skills that will be useful to you as you solve future tasks or problems.
Tip #3: Complete your paper by focusing upon the skills you can develop in the assignment that will be relevant to your future goals.
Selecting a Topic that Works for You
Ideally, your instructor should teach for learning transfer. In other words, your instructor should develop his or her curriculum so that it helps you make connections between the course and your future goals. Unfortunately, this is often not the case (Merriam & Leahy, 2005). This means that you may need to be intentional as you search for a project topic. You now know that learning transfer refers to the process of applying knowledge or skills in one setting to another. By drawing upon the power of the learning transfer concept when choosing a topic for a research paper, you should be better able to select topics that are more interesting, more relevant, and more motivating to you. Ultimately, though, you will be better able to take control of your education. This is your education—make it work for you!
Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt.
Detterman, D. K. (1993). The case for prosecution: Transfer as an epiphenomenona. In D. K. Detterman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition and instruction (pp. 1-23). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Foley, J. M, & Kaiser, L. M. R. (2013). Learning transfer and its intentionality in adult and continuing education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 137, p. 5-16.
Hung, W. (2013). Problem-based learning: A learning environment for enhancing learning transfer. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 137, p. 27-38.
Kaminski, K., Foley, J. M., & Kaiser, L. M. R. (2013). Applying transfer in practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 137, p. 83-90.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Merriam, S. B., & Leahy, B. (2005). Learning transfer: A review of the research in adult education and training. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 14, 1-24.