Your research question is meant to focus your research and center your thinking. A good research question is general enough that ample source material can be found that discuss the question, but also be specific and focused enough that it can be fully addressed. Like a scientific hypothesis, it provides a frame for your continued research. In general, avoid yes/no questions (they go nowhere) and “why” questions (often unanswerable). “How” and “what” questions are usually more manageable and specific. Finally, a good research question should be interesting. If the question leaves you asking “so what?” or “who cares?” it is probably not worth researching.
Before you can develop a research question, you need to choose a topic. One way to decide on a topic is to choose something from your course that’s been of particular interest to you and examine it more deeply.
To move from a topic to a research question, conduct some preliminary research. Do some searches in the library’s databases for relevant, scholarly books and articles. You can consult the bibliographies of sources you have read in class. Remember that the reference librarians are here to help.
Consider these points when developing a research question and check off each point to make sure you’ve crafted a good question.
Adapted from an explanation by Dr. Jennifer Einspahr, with many thanks.
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 narrows down 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 main environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors predict whether Americans will develop diabetes, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?
The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves 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.
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