Building on Your Research Question

Whether you’re developing research questions for your personal life, your work for an employer, or for academic purposes, the process always forces you to figure out exactly:

  • What you’re interested in finding out;
  • What it’s feasible for you to find out (given your time, money, and access to information sources);
  • How you can find it out, including what research methods will be necessary and what information sources will be relevant; and
  • What kinds of claims you’ll be able to make or conclusions you’ll be able to draw about what you found out.

For academic purposes, you may have to develop research questions to carry out both large and small assignments. A smaller assignment may be to do research for a class discussion or to, say, write a blog post for a class; larger assignments may have you conduct research and then report it in a lab report, poster, term paper, or article.

For large projects, the research question (or questions) you develop will define or at least heavily influence:

  • Your topic, in that research questions effectively narrow the topic you’ve first chosen or been assigned by your instructor;
  • What, if any, hypotheses you want to test;
  • Which information sources are relevant to your project;
  • Which research methods are appropriate; and
  • What claims you can make or conclusions you can come to as a result of your research, including what thesis statement you should write for a term paper or what results section you should write about the data you collected in your own science or social science study.

Sometimes students inexperienced at working with research questions confuse them with the keywords they will type into the search box of a search engine or database when looking for sources for their project. Or, they confuse research questions with the thesis statement they will write when they report their research.

The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.

Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you, if applicable).
Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.
Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.
Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.
Step 5: Change that question you’re interested in so that it is more focused.

Once you know the order of the steps, only three skills are involved in developing a research question:

  • Imagining narrower topics about a larger one;
  • Thinking of questions that stem from a narrow topic; and
  • Focusing questions to eliminate their vagueness.

Every time you use these skills it’s important to evaluate what you have produced; doing so is just part of the process of turning your drafts of questions into a more finished product that reflects your evolution in brainstorming.

Maybe you have a topic in mind, but aren’t sure how to form research questions around it. The trick is to think of a question related to your topic, but not answerable with a quick search. Also, try to be specific so that your research question can be fully answered in the final product for your research assignment.

Sometimes the first draft of a research question is still too broad, which can make your search for sources more challenging. Refining your question to remove vagueness or to target a specific aspect of the topic can help.

check your understanding

The first draft research questions below are not focused enough. Read them and identify at least one area of vagueness in each. Then, check your vagueness with what we identified. It’s great if you found more than we did because that can lead to research questions of greater specificity. See the bottom of the page for the answers.