Topic analysis

Before you begin your research, spend time analysing the question and identifying the components of your task. This will help guide the research process and help you to research more efficiently and effectively.

Step one - Understand the question

The way the assignment question is worded can provide many clues as to how you should proceed. What are the direction words used to indicate how to proceed with the essay? The following table includes some of the most common directional terms used to word essay questions. Close reading of the question and referring back to it throughout the essay writing process is critical to ensuring that you are answering it properly.


Analysis goes beyond describing or summarising the topic or issue. You must engage with 'how' and 'why', and show you understand the underlying concepts or processes.



Look for similarities and differences between two or more things. Generally, this involves identifying some underlying concept that connects them, and suggesting what they tell us about that concept.


Argue for and/or against. This requires acknowledging the scholarly debates and exploring the implications and the advantages or disadvantages of the viewpoints involved.


Identify the strengths and weaknesses of a claim or position and then make a judgement.


Relate how or why something happened, or clarify causes, reasons or effects.

No matter how the question is worded, you should assume that you are required to take a position and present an argument. That is, a logical sequence of points that leads to an overall answer or conclusion. You can take any position you want providing it is presented in a reasonable manner and is supported by suitable and relevant evidence.

Look at your lecture notes, tutorial readings, and course outline to determine how the key themes, concepts and theories you have been studying in your course are linked to the question. This contextual information helps you to formulate your position or argument.

Step two - Understand the debate

Given that in your response you need to take a position, you can assume there is a wider scholarly debate or conversation about the topic in question. What is the controversy? What are you being asked to evaluate? Why is this significant to your discipline? The research process requires you to become familiar with all sides of the debate, not just that which supports your own view. There are likely to be many viewpoints on any given topic.

Reading widely and critically helps you to find information about what is currently known about the topic. It helps you to understand its background context and underlying theories. What follows are some hints on how to research effectively. 

Tips for researching strategically

  • Research and read with a purpose. Seek out information that answers a specific question you have. For example, you may ask yourself, 'I want to understand this theory more' or 'I want to know more about the historical context.' This will help to focus each stage of your literature search and make the process more manageable. The ANU Library provides a comprehensive guide on topic analysis to help formulate strategies that focus on breaking down a topic into searchable terms.
  • Look for evidence in the readings that you think may support your position. Engage with evidence that you think contradicts your position. Remember you are engaging in debates which might be foundational or important to your discipline. The ANU Library offers detailed subject guides which cover a range of disciplines and also offer individual or small group subject specific research consultations to help navigate the Library's resources and develop effective search strategies.
  • Read strategically at the early stages of research. This means skimming rather than reading entire journal articles or chapters. For more information on how to read strategically and effectively, see our information page here.
  • Have a systematic approach to your notetaking. You may like to make margin notes while reading then rewrite or summarise them in a new document. The Cornell note-taking system is one example of a systematic approach.