Picking a Topic: A Pivotal Process

A new teacher (who used to be my student) recently asked me how I helped my students pick topics for a project we were both doing in our different classes. He had struggled with that piece of the experience. Picking a topic for a project can be daunting. If teachers want the best work from their students, investing effort in the process will pay off. During the past decade, I have developed a few lesson plans and procedures that have been successful for me.


In situations where the teachers know more about the topic than the students, it’s easy to provide a list. For example, my colleagues do a project on endangered cultures; since students are unlikely to be familiar with the numerous groups worldwide that fit the theme, it makes sense for the teachers to give students a list of options. But sometimes teachers can’t possibly know all the options.

Group Decisions

My class does a project every fall in which they create and perform a play.The criteria for deciding upon a story has guidelines, but the possibilities are limitless. I devote an entire class period for groups to select a story. In the classroom, there are books of children’s stories from other cultures, and the internet is also accessible. Students have already spent time bonding as a group, discussing the value of conflict, and engaging in models for making decisions.

On slide 6 of the presentation above, guidelines are given. Without specific guidelines, projects can get off track and the goal of the project may not be reached. On slide 7, groups are required to call me to their table upon making a decision. If I approve their topic, I make a big deal of it:  I ring a bell and announce to the whole class, “Group B has chosen a story!” and then I write their story’s origin culture on the board. This encourages groups to make a decision, and it also narrows down their choices because no two groups may pick stories from the same region. By the end of class, nearly every group will have picked a story.

Topics Determine Groups

Sometimes what students care about determines how best to create groups. Every year my students made humorous videos about Technology Do’s and Don’ts. We begin that unit by reading an opinion piece from 1995 about the internet. Then each class brainstorms 50 examples of how people misuse technology and I write them on the board. They vote by placing 5 dots on their favorite topics. By the end of one class period, we have identified topics and groups have been arranged. Because we do this openly, students have some control over both their topic as well as their group members; I have control over the size of the groups and the 50 topic options.

For a longer-term project, letting students pick their groups is not the best idea. Collaboration works best when groups are diverse. In general, if the project lasts longer than 2 weeks, I determine the make-up of the group. For our annual service learning project, which lasts most of the semester, I use a different process. They fill out a worksheet with their opinions about certain topics (taken from recent articles, political speeches, or, as in the example below, crowd-sourced from my social media friends.) The topic list starts with my examples, but we do open-ended brainstorming at the end, so each class period has a list that is 50% generated by themselves. The worksheet asks each student to rank their top 6 topics, and i use those to create balanced groups. For a few students, nothing matches their top 6, but I have data on the rest of the worksheet that shows me how they feel about all the topics. Finding common ground about the purpose of their efforts makes groups much more likely to succeed.


The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life sponsors an annual project called Speak Up Speak Out. The teacher resources are excellent, and the lessons below are based on the official curriculum guide.

The brainstorming lesson is designed to set the rationale for the project. The next lesson goes into further detail about the project itself, and leads them through the process of picking a topic and group mates.

photo of students

2019 SUSO Winners

For the past two years, San Antonio has had a local Speak Up Speak Out competition to determine who qualifies for the state-side competition. My students have won every place at the local competition two years in a row.

The most effective learning happens when students are highly engaged in relevant projects over which they have some control. Choosing a topic is a pivotal part of successful project-based learning. I hope other teachers find these ideas helpful.