Topic analysis

Topic analysis is the act of breaking down an assignment question or research topic so that you understand it in detail. The aim is to have a clear idea of what you are meant to write before you start your research.

It is common for students to lose marks because they ‘didn’t address the topic properly’. To avoid that possibility, follow this step-by-step process. It may seem cumbersome, but with practice, you will get better at it.

The process is best done with paper and pen so you can write all over the task. This will help you identify what to focus on. The steps are:

  1. Check meanings of words/re-write topic or quote
  2. Circle instructional words
  3. Underline the key words
  4. Bracket the limiting words
  5. Divide the topic into sections

Step 1: Check meanings of words

Do you understand every word in the topic question?

Use a dictionary to check any words you are unsure about, or unfamiliar with. This applies to phrases as well. For example, do you understand what is meant by ‘theoretical perspective’ or ‘critique’ in the example in Step 2?

After you’ve checked the meanings, it may help to rewrite the topic in a way that you better understand it, especially if you’ve been asked to respond to a quote. This not only helps to cement your understanding of what the question/quote is asking, but it can also provide you with a version of the
topic that is clearer to you, to which you can refer later.

Go to Step 2 to see an example of a topic that has been marked up for analysis.

Step 2: Circle instructional words

Instructional words tell you ‘how’ to respond to a topic, such as ‘outline’ and ‘discuss’.

Some examples of instructional words are:

  • Analyse – methodically examine in detail to explain, interpret and discuss
  • Describe – give a detailed account to illustrate the topic; explain in sequence or order
  • Discuss – give both sides of an argument (plus evidence) and then your own opinion
  • Evaluate – look at reasons for and against, draw conclusions, form an idea of the value of something
  • See more definitions on our helpsheet, Glossary of Instructional Words

Usually, your assignments will require you to focus only on presenting ideas and providing evidence. Some may expect you to present your own opinion, or to identify one outcome as better than another. This is why identifying the instructional words is important.

Example: Step 2

The instructional words are circled in green.

Read on to Step 3.

Step 3: Underline key words

Key words are the ‘focus’ that you will need to explore or examine in detail in your assignment. You may also need to define the key words in your writing.

Try using the key words as a starting point in your research strategy. That is, enter the key words into the library’s online search engine.

Remember that key words:

  • may need to be defined, e.g., Piaget’s theory, Tort, Therapeutic communication
  • tell you what to focus on, e.g., benefits, challenges, application

Example: Step 3

The key words are underlined.

Read on to Step 4.

Step 4: Bracket limiting words

These words can also be viewed as key words, but limiting words have a specific focus.  Limiting words relate to:

  • A population (who?)
  • A place (where?)
  • A period in time (when?)

Example: Step 4

The limiting words are bracketed.

Not all topics include limiting words. Some disciplines require that you research a particular group of people in a specific location. In nursing, for example, you may be asked to:

Compare the health needs of adolescents living in rural Australia in the 1960s with those of today. Discuss these changes in the context of community health nurses.

If we bracket the limiting words in this example, we see five groups:

Compare the health needs of [adolescents] living in [rural Australia] in the [1960s] with those of [today]. Discuss these changes in the context of the work of [community health nurses].

By identifying limiting words, you can pick up the specific focus of this essay that requires you to limit your research to Australian publications only. Highlighting limiting words helps to clarify further where your attention should be, and ensures that you don’t research or focus on irrelevant areas.

Read on to Step 5.

Step 5: Divide the topic into sections

This final step identifies parts of the topic around which you might organise your ideas. ‘Divide your topic into sections’ means that you should break the question down into smaller segments, This is likely to make it easier to understand and address. This process can also help you to sort out the content of your main paragraphs so that the structure of your assignment is clear.

Example: Step 5

Discuss how the essay writing process develops brain neurons. Describe three specific academic skills and outline their impact on certain areas of the brain.

Address each of these segments individually. You may find some overlap between the segments, which then enriches your discussion.

Download our helpsheet, Topic Analysis.