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CHIN 260: Women in China

Creating a Research Question

What is a Research Question?

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.

Elements of a good research question:

  • Clear and focused - your question makes sense and is not vague.
  • Arguable - your question is open to debate and cannot be answered with a report of facts.
  • Complex - your question requires critical analysis of ideas and sources; it cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

How to develop your research question:

  1. Before you can develop a research question, you need to choose a topic.
  2. Choose an idea or issue that you are curious and passionate about.
  3. Think critically and ask further questions:
    Ask “how” and “why” questions about your topic.
    For example, “How did films from the 1930s reflect or respond to the conditions of the Great Depression?”
  4. To move from topic to research question, do some preliminary research:
    • See what others have written on your question - 
      • What issues are scholars and researchers discussing?
      • What questions come up as you read these sources?
    • Search library databases for encyclopedias, scholarly books, and articles.
    • Consult bibliographies of sources you have read in class.
  5. Refine your question. 
    • Is your research question clear and understandable
    • Is your research question focused
      - Research questions must be specific in order to be covered in depth.
    • Is your research question complex
      - Research questions should not be answerable with “yes” or “no,” or by easily found facts. They require research and analysis, and they often begin with “How” or “Why.”
  6. Intensify your research. 
    What are the possible paths your research question could take? What types of sources should you consult? What approach to your research will ensure that you find a variety of perspectives and responses to your question?

Example Research Questions

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.

UnfocusedWhat is the effect on the environment from global warming?
FocusedWhat 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

Research Question Checklist

Consider these points when developing a research question and check off each point to make sure you’ve crafted a good question. 

--My question is researchable. I will be able to find enough information

--The answer to my question is not obvious. I do not already know the answer. 
(You want to research something from which you can learn new information.)

--My question is concise and straightforward.

--My question is of interest to me. I am excited about learning new information.

--My question is not too broad. There is not too much information.  (If there is too much information, you will get general information and not learn anything in depth.)

--My question is not too narrow. Too narrow means it can be answered with a simple word or number, or a collection of facts and figures.

--My question requires me to think critically and ask further questions.

--My question starts with one of these:  HOW, WHICH, SHOULD, IN WHAT WAYS, and (sometimes) WHY.

Adapted from an explanation by Dr. Jennifer Einspahr, with many thanks.