Before you start a large research project, be sure to do background research. Read textbooks, encyclopedias, and check out relevant Wikipedia pages. Reference sources can help you determine the scope of your project, learn new keywords, and become generally familiar with the subject area and terminology.
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A research question focuses your research and centers your thinking. A good research question requires you to think critically and ask further questions. It is broad enough that you can find plenty of sources and focused enough that you can fully consider it. Your research question should be interesting to you and get you excited to learn more. If a question leaves you asking “so what?” or “who cares?,” it is not worth investigating. Your research question can evolve as you learn more about your topic, and you can revise or modify your question as you learn more.
Unclear: How should social networking sites address the harm they cause?
Clear: What action should social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook take to protect users’ personal information and privacy?
The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites might be causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (Instagram and Facebook), the type of potential harm (privacy issues), and who may be experiencing that harm (users). A strong research question leaves no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation.
Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: What is the most significant effect of glacial melting on the lives of penguins in Antarctica?
The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length work, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version is narrowed to a specific effect of global warming (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific animal that is affected (penguins). It also requires the writer to take a stance on which effect has the greatest impact on the affected animal. When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.
Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex: What environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors predict whether some Americans will develop diabetes, and how can these commonalities be analyzed to further medical research toward the prevention of the disease?
The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences, leaving no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought-provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. If a quick Google search can answer a research question, then the question does not pose sufficient analysis and critical thinking.
Explanation adapted Dr. Jennifer Einspahr, with many thanks.
Adapted from George Mason University Writing Center. (2018). How to write a research question. Retrieved from http://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/how-to-write-a-research-question