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Research Toolkit: Creating a Research Question


What is a Research Question?


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. 


From Topic to Research Question


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. 


Distilled Advice on Creating a Research Question:


  • Your research question is the most critical part of research.  Your information gathering process is designed around your question.
  • Before you can write a research question, you must do some searching on your topic to get background knowledge…from encyclopedias, books, etc.
  • Remember that your research question can evolve the more you learn about your subject - you can always modify your question as you continue to research.


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 that you can learn new information from.)
  • 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.

Elements of a good research question:


  • Clear and focused. Your question should make sense and not be too broad.
  • Arguable. Your question is open to debate and not a report of facts.
  • Complex. Your question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no;” it requires analysis of ideas and sources.

How to develop your research question:

  1. Choose an issue that you are curious and passionate about. 
    Professional researchers focus on topics that genuinely interest them.
  2. Do preliminary research on your general topic.
    See what others have written to help you narrow your focus. What issues are scholars and researchers discussing? What questions occur to you as you read these sources?
  3. Start asking questions
    Ask “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “Why were slave narratives effective tools in working toward the abolishment of slavery?” or “How did the films of the 1930s reflect or respond to the conditions of the Great Depression?”
  4. 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.”
  5. Begin your research. 
    After you have decided on a question, think about the possible paths your research could take. What sources should you consult as you seek information on your question? What research process 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 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