How to Write a Research Question
What is a research question?
A research question is a clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable question around which you
center your research. You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious about.
Why is a research question essential to the research process?
Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and
writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “allabout” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.
Steps to developing a research question:
• Choose an interesting general topic. Even directed academic research should focus on a topic in
which the writer is at least somewhat personally invested. Writers should choose a broad topic
about which they genuinely would like to know more. An example of a general topic might be
“Slavery in the American South” or “Films of the 1930s.”
• Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick searches in current
periodicals and journals on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow
your focus. What questions does this early research raise?
• Consider your audience. For most college papers, your audience will be academic, but always
keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. Would
that particular audience be interested in this question?
• Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself openended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “How did the slave
trade evolve in the 1850s in the American South?” or “Why were slave narratives effective tools
in working toward the abolishment of slavery?”
Evaluate your question.
◦ Is your research question clear? With so much research available on
◦ any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in
◦ order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research.
Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in
the space available. (See flip side for examples of focused vs. unfocused research questions.)
Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes”
or “no” or by easily-found facts. They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part
of the writer.
• Hypothesize. After you’ve come up with a question, think about what the path you think the
answer will take. Where do you think your research will take you? What kind of argument are
you hoping to make/support? What will it mean if your research disputes your planned
Sample Research Questions
Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites
as MySpace and Facebook?
The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what
kind of harm the sites are causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The
clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of harm (privacy issues), and who the
issue is harming (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or
Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in the Arctic Circle?
The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length
piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause
(glacial melting), a specific place (the Arctic Circle), and a specific group that is affected (penguins).
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 are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, 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. As a general rule of thumb,
if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.
Retrieved online from the George Mason University Writing Centre
The Importance of a Good Research Question
A good research question defines the focus of your research project. Your research question helps
readers to know the specific subject matter you will be addressing within the broad topic of
environmental history. For instance, suppose you are interested in market development and its
environmental effects. If you asked, “What is the relationship between market development and
environmental degradation?” your question would be too broad. This question does not clearly define
the problems you are interested in, nor does it put boundaries on your research project. Instead, you
could ask, “How did large-scale agriculture contribute to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s?” This is a more
specific question. A well-articulated research question provides you and your readers with critical
information about your project by defining the focus of your research, its scope, and your motivation.
A research question can set boundaries to help you figure out where to go next. A research question
defines which data you need to collect and which methods you will use to access and analyze your
documents. Again, take the Dust Bowl question in the previous paragraph as an example. By
narrowing your question to the relationship between large-scale agriculture and the Dust Bowl, you
also narrow the scope of data collection and analysis. You may start archival research focusing on
agriculture and settlement history, or decide to conduct oral histories concerning farmers’ memories
of the Dust Bowl.
However, as you collect data, your question is likely to change and grow. Defining questions within
your project is not a linear process. Rather, questions will define your directions of inquiry and, in
turn, the results of your inquiries will refine your question. Developing research questions is an
iterative process evolving with your project. We have made a figure below to illustrate the process.
You will start with something you are interested in. You will then create questions about this thing,
and figure out what your next steps will be to investigate those questions further. As a result, you will
(hopefully) learn something new, which will lead to a whole new “item of interest.