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Library & Research Know-How

LARK: An Open Educational Resource

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Introduction

Both professional researchers and successful student researchers develop research questions. That’s because research questions are more than handy tools; they are essential to the research process. By defining exactly what the researcher is trying to find out, these questions influence most of the rest of the steps taken to conduct the research. That’s true even if the research is not for academic purposes but for other areas of our lives.

For instance, if you’re seeking information about a health problem in order to learn whether you have anything to worry about, research questions will make it possible for you to more effectively decide whether to seek medical help–and how quickly.

Or, if you’re researching a potential employer, having developed and used research questions will mean you’re able to more confidently decide whether to apply for an internship or job there. The confidence you’ll have when making such decisions will come from knowing that the information they’re based on was gathered by conscious thought rather than serendipity and whim.

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in secondary school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects.

It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”

 

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All Possible Topics – You’ll need to narrow your topic in order to do research effectively. Without specific areas of focus, it will be hard to even know where to begin.

Assigned Topics – Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. Often, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you. One way to get ideas is to read background information in a source like Wikipedia.

Topic Narrowed by Initial Exploration – It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic to a) learn more about it and b) learn specialized terms used by professionals and scholars who study it.

Topic Narrowed to Research Question(s) – A research question defines exactly what you are trying to find out. It will influence most of the steps you take to conduct the research.

Are research questions any different from most of the questions for which we seek information?

Yes.

See how they’re different by looking over the examples of both kinds below.

EXAMPLES: Regular vs. Research Questions

 

Regular Question: What can I do about my insomnia?

Research Question: How do flights more than 16 hours long affect the reflexes of commercial jet pilots?


Regular Question: What is Mers?

Research Question: How could decision making about whether to declare a pandemic be improved?


Regular Question: Does MLA style recommend the use of generic male pronouns intended to refer to both males and females?

Research Question: How do age, gender, IQ, and socioeconomic status affect whether students interpret generic male pronouns as referring to both males and females?

Developing a Research Question

The Influence of a Research Question

For academic purposes, you may have to develop research questions to carry out both large and small assignments. A smaller assignment may be to do research for a class discussion or to, say, write a blog post for a class; larger assignments may have you conduct research and then report it in a lab report, poster, term paper, or article. For large projects, the research question (or questions) you develop will define or at least heavily influence:

  • Your topic, in that research questions effectively narrow the topic you’ve first chosen or been assigned by your instructor.
  • What, if any, hypotheses you test.
  • Which information sources are relevant to your project.
  • Which research methods are appropriate.
  • What claims you can make or conclusions you can come to as a result of your research, including what thesis statement you should write for a term paper or what results section you should write about the data you collected in your own science or social science study

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Influence on a Thesis

Within an essay, poster, or term paper, the thesis is the researcher’s answer to the research question(s). So as you develop research questions, you are effectively specifying what any thesis in your project will be about. While perhaps many research questions could have come from your original topic, your question states exactly which one(s) your thesis will be answering.

For example

A topic that starts out as “desert symbiosis” could eventually lead to a research question that is “how does the diversity of bacteria in the gut of the Sonoran Desert termite contribute to the termite’s survival?” In turn, the researcher’s thesis will answer that particular research question instead of the numerous other questions that could have come from the desert symbiosis topic. Developing research questions is all part of a process that leads to greater and greater specificity for your project.

TIP: Don’t Make These Mistakes

Sometimes students inexperienced at working with research questions confuse them with the search statements they will type into the search box of a search engine or database when looking for sources for their project. Or, they confuse research questions with the thesis statement they will write when they report their research.

Developing a Research Question

The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.

Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).

Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.

Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.

Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.

Step 5: Change that question you’re interested in so that it is more focused.

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MOVIE: Developing Research Questions

As you view this short video on how to develop research questions, think about the steps. Which step do you think is easiest? Which do you think is hardest?