Creating a Research Question

Mapping your Research ideas

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. Developing a research question is a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow your ideas down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out instead of only what you want to “write about.”

A Venn diagram of concentric circles to show narrowing from all possible topics to a specific research questionVisualize narrowing a topic as starting with all possible topics and choosing narrower and narrower subsets until you have a specific enough topic to form a research question.

All Possible Topics – You’ll need to narrow your topic in order to do research effectively. Without specific areas of focus, it will be hard to even know where to begin.

Assigned Topics – Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere, and even when you are assigned a topic you typically will need to further define the focus for your project. Often, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you (e.g., why do you care about the topic, how does it affect you now and/or how may it affect you in the future, etc.). One way to get ideas is to read background information in a source like Wikipedia.

Topic Narrowed by Initial Exploration – It’s helpful to do some more reading about that narrower topic to both learn more about it and learn specialized terms used by professionals and scholars who study it. You may be able to use those specialized terms to help you look for further source material to use in your project.

Topic Narrowed to Research Question(s) – A research question defines exactly what you are trying to find out. It will influence most of the steps you take to conduct the research.

Most of us look for information to answer questions every day, and we often act on the answers to those questions. You may be wondering then, are research questions any different from most of the questions for which we seek information? Yes.

See the chart below for examples of regular questions and research questions that are based on them.

Examples of Regular Questions Examples of Research Questions
What time is my movie showing at Lennox on Friday? How do sleeper films end up having outstanding attendance figures?
What can I do about my insomnia? How do flights more than 16 hours long affect the reflexes of commercial jet pilots?
How many children in the U.S. have allergies? How does his or her country of birth affect a child’s chances of developing asthma?
What new medicines for diabetes are under development? Why are nanomedicines, such as doxorubicin, worth developing?
Could citizens register to vote at branches of the Columbus Public Library in 2012? How do public libraries in the United States support democracy?
What is the Whorfian Hypothesis? Why have linguists cared about the Whorfian hypothesis?
Where is the Apple, Inc. home office? Why are Apple’s marketing efforts so successful?
What is Mers? How could decision making about whether to declare a pandemic be improved?
Does MLA style recommend the use of generic male pronouns intended to refer to both males and females? How do age, gender, IQ, and socioeconomic status affect whether students interpret generic male pronouns as referring to both males and females?

Research questions cannot be answered by a quick web search. Answering them involves using more critical thinking than answering everyday questions because they seem more debatable. Research questions require more sources of information to answer and, consequently, take more time to answer. They, more often than regular questions, start with the word “How” or “Why.”

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