Research Questions

Learning Objectives

  • Examine effective research questions

Now that you have seen how to narrow a topic, it’s time to see how you can take your topic and develop a good research question.

Text bubbles with the words "why", "where", "what", "when", "who", and "how" written inside.

Figure 1. The “how”, “why”, and “what” questions give ample room for elaboration as you write and research your topic. Most of the time they are very difficult to answer with a single word or sentence.

Here are some ideas for your research question

  • How questions: How were anti-aircraft guns used in the defense of London through the Blitz?
  • Why questions: Why were anti-aircraft guns initially limited in their ability to defend London during the Blitz?
  • What questions: What were the initial and later strategies for deploying anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz of London?

As you continue to work, you might find yourself combining some of these into a single question. For example, “What changes were made in the technology and deployment of anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz that allowed them to be used more effectively as the Blitz wore on?”

Notice that the question above allows you to go deep with a single, limited topic and master some important information in one area of weapons and those weapons used in WWII. By the time you’re finished writing this paper, you’ll be a semi-expert on the Blitz of London and the use of anti-aircraft guns by the British during that period.

No matter what your topic is, you can follow the same four-level process in narrowing your topic and developing your research question.

Try following these steps once you have settled on a general topic:

  1. How many different aspects of this topic am I able to list? You may want to consult encyclopedias or web pages to get you started here if you are stuck. Write down the list.
  2. Of those aspects listed above, which am I most interested in learning more about? Write down one or two and follow steps 3 and 4 for each one. You may find that you come up with more than one interesting research question. Then you’ll need to choose!
  3. Of the aspect that most interests me, what elements of it am I able to find information about in an encyclopedia or on a web page? (Notice that you may need to repeat this step more than once to really get down to a workable limited focus.) Make a list.
  4. What relationships between these elements are suggested by combining them using what, when, where, why, or how words?

Change can be a good thing.

Remember, too, that a research question is a beginning point to writing your paper. Once you start digging more deeply into the research process and start drafting your paper, you may find that the focus of your question shifts somewhat. Maybe you thought you were going to do a Why question, but as you research, you find that the most interesting material really relates to a How question. That’s OK! You’re not absolutely committed to your original writing and focus.

Keep in mind, though, you don’t want to go off into another direction entirely (for example, switching from a focus on the use of anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz to the process and perils of evacuating the children of London during the Blitz). Try not to put yourself in a position where you need to start all over by changing your entire direction. You will find a lot of interesting material related to your topic. Rather than changing direction entirely, however, save some of that intriguing but different material for a future paper that examines another aspect of your topic.

Try It