Developing Research Questions

Learning Objectives

  • Identify effective research questions that are not too narrow or broad
  • Generate substantive, open-ended questions about the past

Imagine the following conversation with your friend:

Friend: “The funniest thing ever happened today!”
You: “What happened?”
Friend: “Oh my goodness…you wouldn’t even believe it. I don’t even know where to start.”
You: “Okay, now I need to know. Where were you? Did it happen to you or to someone else?”
Friend: “Someone else. It saw it on the way to class.”
You: “Well, what happened? Who was it?”
Friend: “This guy had turned around to talk to his friend and kept walking—directly into the fountain.”
You: “Did he fall in?”
Friend: “Yes, he started falling, and when he reached out for something to catch his fall, he grabbed a girl next to him and pulled her in, too!”

And you can imagine even more questions to follow—How did she react? Were they soaked afterwards? Did anyone help? Did they say anything?

In conversation with someone, it’s natural to ask questions to learn more. The more questions you ask, the more details you have, and the better equipped you’ll be to fully visualize what happened. Much in the same way that actively engaging in a conversation helps you paint a picture about a situation, you can also ask questions to learn more information about a research topic.

Research Questions

Developing a research question is the first, and, arguably, the most crucial step in creating a research-based project, whether it be a traditional academic research paper, a podcast, or a video presentation. A well-framed research question will allow you to focus on the matter at hand and approach it in a logical way. A poorly framed research question will make your project extremely difficult to complete, if not impossible. Let’s take a deeper look into developing the research question.

WAtch It

Watch this video to see how developing a research question can set you up for successful research.

You can view the transcript for “Developing a Research Question” here (opens in new window).

Developing a Research Question

Your research question guides your research. Your research project will answer your research question. But how do you develop a research question? If your project is for a class in the history of the early United States, you may be assigned a specific research question, for example, “What were the causes of the Whiskey Rebellion?” But what if your assignment requires you to develop your own research question? Where do you start?

First, consider the general topic. (If the assignment requires you to focus on the history of the early U.S. republic, then a topic about World War II will not work.) Then, look for some aspect of that general topic that is interesting to you. A research project that interests you is much easier (and more fun!) to complete than one that bores you. For example, if your topic is the early U.S. republic, you could generally look into the expansion of the United States Navy, or the growing concerns enslavers had about slave rebellion. Both are appropriate, but one might be far more interesting to you.

Once you arrive at a general topic, consider a few defining questions. Defining questions help take a broad topic and narrow it down to create a focal point. If your topic was the American Revolution you might ask the following general defining questions:

  1. Who did America fight?
  2. Who won the war?
  3. When was the war?
  4. What caused the war?
  5. Where was the war fought?

These are very general questions, and you already know most of these answers, but they do allow you to think more deeply about the general topic as you work toward developing your research question.


For this exercise, imagine that your instructor has assigned you a research project on an enslaved person’s revolt during the 18th and 19th centuries—a topic about which you know very little, so you will begin by asking five defining questions. They can be quite general, but they will allow you to probe the topic a bit more deeply. For example, you might ask “Where did the enslaved people revolt?” Use the space below to jot down ideas for your clarifying questions.

Now, let’s do some preliminary research on your topic. Here your course textbook or a review of a Wikipedia article can provide you with enough general information to ask a more specific, focused research question. You want to develop a good research question that focuses your research and sets you up for success in the finished product. Let’s first look at what constitutes a “bad” research question.

Too Narrow

Is your question easily answered with a few simple facts? For example, if the question is: “Who was the first secretary of the United States Treasury?” then it will be difficult to develop a full project because that question is way too narrow. It can be answered in one sentence: “Alexander Hamilton was the first secretary of the United States Treasury.” Your instructor probably expects more than one sentence for your research project.

But even if the research question is not easily answered in one sentence, a question can still be too narrow. If your general topic is Alexander Hamilton, and the question you ask is: “How did Alexander Hamilton’s childhood education affect his view of public credit?” you will likely have a very difficult time finding sources to investigate and answer the question. This is a great tip to keep in mind. If you cannot find sources to answer your question, then that is a very clear indication the question is too narrow or otherwise problematic.

Too Broad

A research question can also be too broad. For example, “What was the impact of the Louisiana Purchase?” would be too broad, and would likely require hundreds of pages to answer. You would need to address the impact of the purchase on the expansion of slavery and the debates associated with slavery, evaluate the environmental impact of westward expansion, examine how Native Americans were affected, discuss how Napoleon used the purchase price to carry out wars in Europe, evaluate the significance of the port of New Orleans to the future of the United States, etc. This is likely well beyond the scope of your project. If you begin your research and are overwhelmed with sources, that is a good indication your topic is too broad.

Try It

See how well you can identify which research questions are either too narrow or too broad in this activity:

So the goal, then, is to hit the “sweet spot” in developing a research question. You want a question neither too narrow nor too broad. You want a question with boundaries that keep you on track. Let’s take a broad question and narrow it down to a workable and good research question. One way to do this is to use the 5Ws to narrow down the question.

  • Who?: who is the individual or group of individuals we are investigating?
  • What?: what aspect of the “who” are we investigating?
  • When?: what is the timeframe of our investigation?
  • Where?: what is the geographical focus of our investigation?
  • Why?: why is this investigation important or meaningful?

Watch It

Answering the questions posed by the 5Ws can help you narrow down the types of things you are curious about and lead you to your research question.

For closed captioning, open the video on its original page by clicking the YouTube logo in the lower right-hand corner of the video display. In YouTube, the video will begin at the same starting point as this clip, but will continue playing until the very end.

You can view the transcript for this segmented clip of “Using the 5Ws to Develop a Research Question” here (opens in new window).

Let’s assume that your general topic is slave revolt. Here we want to apply the 5Ws.

  • Who?: Enslaved persons
  • What?: Revolt
  • When?: The early republic, 1790-1820
  • Where?: The U.S. South
  • Why?: Did slave revolt have an impact on the treatment of enslaved persons?

And now we need to frame the 5Ws into one, answerable research question.

How did the revolt of enslaved persons in the U.S. South during the early republic impact laws about slavery?

We now have placed boundaries with a question that will keep us on track as we move forward with the research. We know we are examining how the law changed as a result of slave revolt between 1790 and 1820 in the U.S. South. Books on slave revolt in Cuba are not relevant. Articles on slave revolt in the 1730s are not relevant. Books on slave revolt in the North are not relevant. Boundaries on your question allow you to manage the project without being overwhelmed and arrive at an answer.


For this exercise, select one of the following topics and apply the 5Ws. Then, craft a research question that applies to the topic you selected.

Topics options:

  • Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit
  • The Battle of Tippecanoe
  • Corps of Discovery

1. Who?:

2. What?:

3. When?:

4. Where?:

5. Why?:

Research question:

Try It

Research Projects other than the Research Paper

Traditionally, when we think of research projects, we think of research papers, and the idea that a good research question makes for a good research paper. That is true, but the principles for evaluating a research question can be applied to multiple projects. Perhaps your instructor in this class, or another class, assigns a poster project, where you must present data in a concise format such as a poster. Doing so without clearly defining the topic will be difficult, and when you are given an assignment that requires you to be brief and concise, a clear research question is vital to meeting the expectations.

The importance of crafting a solid research question applies to other types of assignments such as a video presentation or podcast as well. Podcasts are unique in that your presentation is not written but auditory. When we read something in which the topic wanders or is otherwise confusing, it is easy to go back and reread the material to make sense of what the author is trying to convey. That is not easy to do with a podcast (think about all the times you have hit the rewind button, only to go back too far, or not far enough). In a podcast, you want to stay on track throughout the narrative arc. A well-crafted research question will help you to stay focused, but it will also help shape and refine the focus of your podcast.

Creating a Podcast

Imagine your assignment is to create a podcast on a topic in U.S. history before the Civil War. Without a strong research question, that will be a very long podcast! Where do you even begin? Working through the techniques we have learned here will get you off to a great start:

  1. Pick a general topic that is interesting to you.
  2. Conduct preliminary research.
  3. Consider the 5Ws.
  4. Craft your research question, and then begin looking for the answers.
  5. Refine your question as you compile your research.
  6. Create an outline for your podcast, then fill in the specifics with a script, interview questions, or more details. For podcasting tips, visit this NPR website.

Remember that a research question can evolve and change while you work on your project. For example, if you were creating a podcast about some aspect of slave revolts, after some initial searching, you might have a research question of, “How did the revolt of enslaved persons in the U.S. South during the early Republic impact laws about slavery?”

While you conduct research, you may find interesting stories, news articles, or details about slave codes that lead you to adjust your question. For example, during your research, you will likely learn about the 1811 German Coast Uprisings in New Orleans—the largest uprising in North America with between 200 and 500 enslaved participants. They marched twenty miles in two days, burning and destroying some plantation homes and crops until White people in the area gathered a militia and promptly killed over forty of the enslaved participants. Over the next two weeks, White planters and officials interrogated, tried, executed, and decapitated an additional 44 escaped enslaved Blacks who had been captured. Executions were generally by hanging or firing squad. Heads were displayed on pikes to intimidate other enslaved persons. This is all shocking and new information to you and you decide to focus your research specifically on this uprising. Your new research question may be, “What were the reactions to the German Coast Uprisings in Louisiana in 1811?” Your podcast could answer this question in some way. Note that podcasts come in a variety of formats—it could be an interview, a conversation between co-hosts, a narrative, or something else altogether. No matter the format, having a guiding question that you ultimately answer during the podcast will give you a stronger delivery.


Imagine your assignment is to create a podcast on U.S. history before the Civil War. What topic would you choose? Write a research question that could help you focus on a specific topic or event for your podcast. There is no correct answer, but you can jot down your ideas in the space below.