What is AP Research and How Do I Find a Topic of Inquiry?

10 min readdecember 22, 2021

Dylan Black

Dylan Black

AP Research 🔍

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Introduction to AP Research

Welcome to the second class in the AP Capstone program! Fresh out of AP Seminar, you're ready to take on the next and final step in your journey to earning a Capstone Diploma: AP Research. AP Research is a class that is all about the students. That's right, the students. This class can be summed up in one word: individualistic. As will be seen in just a few minutes, the class truly is what you make of it. In this guide, we'll dive right into it with what AP Research is all about, what differs it from Seminar, and how to find the perfect topic of inquiry and research question.

Source: Tenor

❓ What is AP Research?

AP Research is a beast 👹 of a course, and while this might be coming from my perspective as a veteran of the course, most students will agree that it is a TON of work, and only 8 to 9 months maximum to do it.
While AP Seminar consists of using collected, already established evidence to prove points, AP Research has you collecting your own data. Meaning you'll need to conduct a study, analyze content, experiment, or whatever you want.
Seriously. Whatever your little heart ❤️ desires.
I’ve seen papers on milk cartons, data mining on social media, Disney’s Big Hero Six, and everything in between. In my class alone, there were students studying nutrition, concerts, climate change, water cleanliness, and so much more. The only thing that truly ties together these papers is that they are new, original research that adds to a body of knowledge. Pretty broad, we know.
To further push this point, here are some sample AP Research paper titles from high scoring students:
“Making Health Education LGBTQ+ Inclusive in Vermont High Schools”
“Growth For Good: How Past Experiences Motivate Executives to Join Double Bottom Line Organizations in The Indian Construction Industry”
“Music Chemistry: The Formula of K-Pop”
And those are just from 2017 alone. AP Research lets loose the reins and allows students to quite literally go wild on whatever they want to study. That's why AP Research is such an awesome course.
There are five required sections to the paper: an introduction, a literature review, a methodology, data and/or results and analysis, a conclusion, and a bibliography. The following guides will follow this structure as you go through the AP Research journey.
Throughout the year, students do intensive, in-depth research into a specific discipline, identify a gap in that field, and fill it. This includes conducting a formal literature review; designing a proper, justifiable methodology that will fill the gap; and, finally, actually doing it. The first step of it all, however, is finding a topic, and that's what we'll take a look at first.

🔎 How to Find A Topic of Inquiry

What Even is a Topic of Inquiry?

A topic of inquiry can be defined fairly succinctly: it is the topic that a paper covers. For example: if you are studying education, a topic of inquiry may be "the impacts of flipped classrooms on high school level regular, honors, and AP math classes". Note that the topic of inquiry is detailed and specific. This might seem really simple, but in reality, figuring this out can in fact be one of the hardest parts of this class. Odds are, your teacher had you thinking about this early, maybe even over the summer. Many students think topic of inquiry = discipline. This is NOT true. A discipline is the broad area of study that a paper is focused within. For example, disciplines include economics, film, art, chemistry, physics, music, and even broader, hard sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc. Rather, a topic of inquiry is narrow. It's specific. Think of it this way: if someone put all of a class's topics of inquiry in a hat and pulled them at random, they should be able to easily identify each person who wrote that paper, even if a few students had similar broad focuses.

Finding a Broad Focus

The first step in finding a topic of inquiry is identifying a discipline. This can be a subject you want to major in, a passion of yours, or just something you want to learn more about. Personally, I suggest going with something you have some prior knowledge in, but that doesn't mean you can't explore something new. On a similar note, you may go into Research with what you think is a plan, the perfect plan, a research question and topic of inquiry that will carry you straight to a 5. However, when starting Research, expect for your plans to change. I'll use myself as an example. The summer going into AP Research, I was dead set on doing educational research. I even had a topic of inquiry in mind: I was going to study the impacts of flipped classrooms on different levels of classes (AP, Honors, etc.). Perfect, beautiful, time to win Research. However, this plan very quickly fell apart, and by the end of October, I was re-narrowing a topic of focus about Moon, a science fiction film by Duncan Jones.
In my philosophy, finding your "perfect topic" isn't something you can necessarily "try" to do. If you keep asking yourself "is this my topic?" you'll overthink and keep flip flopping. Instead, you'll know your topic when you see it. I know this sounds sappy and almost romantic, but it's true (heck, my teacher referred to "marrying" your topic at least 3 times). I first watched Moon in chemistry class nearly a YEAR before Research started and I found myself studying its themes of Marxism within two months out of nowhere.

Narrowing a Focus and Finding a Gap in . . . Wait For It . . . Research!

So you've got a broad focus, now what? At this point, you want to start narrowing it down. When I say narrowing, I mean taking what is typically a broad idea and doing research (ah, there's the dreaded word!) to go from this broad topic to a true topic of inquiry. Before we get into this, let's start talking about gaps.

What is a Gap?


Image from Medium.

AP Research is all about finding and closing a gap in the body of knowledge. These are some new terms, so let's start by defining them.
The body of knowledge is all of the "stuff" that is known about your broad focus. For example, let's suppose you have decided that you want to study perceptions of advertising among different age groups (this was just a random off the cusp topic—if you don't want to do something like this, that is fine). Obviously, this broad a topic has been studied. The body of knowledge is all of that stuff that HAS been studied. Essentially, it is the research questions that have already been addressed and therefore have already been covered. Your goal in AP Research is to find a question that hasn't been answered and then answer it! That's where the gap comes in.
Get very, very used to this term folks. The gap describes this tiny bit of research that has not been uncovered, and guess whose job it is to uncover it? YOU!!!! Welcome to the purpose of AP Research: filling the gap.
The idea of the gap can feel super intimidating, and that's because it is! Research is so crazy deep and so intense and the idea of having to find something nobody has studied can feel impossible. In fact, it really is. There is no way to read every paper on every subtopic of subtopic of your body of knowledge. On this point, by filling the gap, I'm not saying you have to make a revolutionary discovery and save the world. In fact, the opposite applies to the majority of AP Research papers. Odds are, you're not about to cure cancer or solve global warming with your paper. Instead, find something small and very niche about your topic—which isn't to say it won't be interesting/important to your discipline and certainly not the discourage you, just that most AP Research papers aren't going to be published in Nature anytime soon.
On a similar note, feasibility is a really important part of narrowing down your focus. When coming up with a topic of inquiry, understand your limitations. You are (assuming school starts in August) given approximately 10 months to conduct your research, write your paper, and do your presentation. While you shouldn't let this hold you back, you should know that you cannot plan anything super large or super time consuming. For example, you may really want to study a population over multiple years, but you simply don't have the time.
For example, suppose your topic of inquiry was "migration patterns of blue whales between June and September in the Northeast Atlantic." While this is a super interesting topic and one that may be a really great paper, it is far from feasible. Not only is there the problem of location, but timing and the sheer expense of taking on a project like this is simply not feasible. In some cases, like perhaps in this one, the solution may unfortunately be to pick a different topic. However, if you're able to make your topic more feasible by adjusting things for timing, costs, etc. you'll have a better topic in the end.

Finding the Gap With the Power of Little-R Research

So now that we understand what the gap is and why it's important, let's talk about how to find the gap. The simple answer is research! When I say research in this context, I'm referring to what's called "little-r research". This means that I'm referring to the use of databases and other tools to find already published work, basically what you did in AP Seminar last year. By comparison, "big-R Research" can be described as your generation of new data and facts that have not been figured out yet. These are by no means scientific terms, but can help when describing how we do research/Research.
When doing your little-r research, you want to use databases and collect as much data and papers as you can. I recommend finding 50+ sources about your topic, slowly narrowing down as you go forward. By reading and really diving deep into these sources you'll be able to A) slowly figure out what questions you have and B) narrow down your topic of inquiry to eventually finding (drumroll . . .) A GAP!!! This is NOT an easy process and will take a lot of thinking and effort on your end, but eventually you'll find a very VERY specific topic of inquiry that will fill a gap situated in a body of knowledge AND you'll essentially be an expert in your topic. Seriously, this is going to be like drinking information from a firehose.
Key Tip! When organizing your sources, use Zotero, a free online research tool that helps you keep your sources in check. Mendeley is also a super great tool.
Key Tip Round 2! If 50 sources sounds like a loooot and you're struggling to find related resources, look in the bibliographies of your papers that you have! Odds are they'll be related and might help you uncover new gaps.

A visual model of a gap. Source: Psychological Health Center of Excellence

💻 A Note on Credibility and Choice of Sources

When doing your little-r research, it's important to take note of new standards of credibility and how to choose your sources. In Seminar, the most typical form of credibility was someone's credentials: things like PhDs, other degrees, positions, etc. While this still plays a large role in credibility in Research, it goes one step farther here. No longer is just someone's degree a telling sign of their credibility, but also their prior research. As you get more and more specific, you need experts.
For example, let's suppose that we moved from our broader topic of perceptions of advertising among different age groups to now finding a gap and filling it by researching how Baby Boomers vs. members of Gen-Z respond to advertising on social media platforms, specifically comparing TikTok to Instagram (again, random topic and a random gap. This is all for example purposes!). First and foremost, dang, our topic has become focused! But secondly, when doing our little-r research now, the papers that we read have to be just as focused. Therefore, when evaluating credibility, we want people with this in-depth specific, knowledge, not just "PhD in Advertising".
Furthermore, the sources that you use will vary greatly based on your question, discipline, and focus. A paper on medicine is going to have a MUCH different source layout than historical research or economic research. Thus, you want to learn how your discipline conducts research on an individual level and what sources are optimal for your eventual introduction and literature review.


Whew! That was . . . a lot. However, you now know how to figure out what you want your topic to be and are ready to officially start the research process! AP Research is a beast of a course, but with the proper time and effort, it is truly a class that allows students to explore their interests and become an in depth expert on a specific topic. In the next guide we'll take a look at writing the introduction to your paper. Good luck!

Image from GIPHY.

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