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Developing a research question

After reading some useful background information, you should have a list of subtopics or areas that you would like to explore further.

Now it's time to use these ideas to formulate a research question.

A research question narrows and focuses your research. It helps you conduct successful research and it provides the backbone on which to structure your entire project.

A research question should be narrow enough that you can thoroughly answer it in your paper, but it should be broad enough that you will be able to find enough information to answer it in the space of your project.

Successful research questions

In general, a research question should ask about the cause, affect, impact, or outcome of one thing on another.

 

A research question should….

  • Have an answer that is not immediately obvious.
  • Be interesting to both the author and the intended audience.
  • Be answerable in space/time you have, and with the available resources.
  • Allow you to search for information on both (or all) sides of a debate.

 

A research question should not

  • Be answerable with a simple yes, no, or single statistic.
  • Be able to be answerable using only one source.
  • Use subjective, vague, or ambiguous language (best, worst, etc).
  • Begin with “should” or “is/are” (these are usually answerable with a yes/no).
  • Simply be your topic restated in question form.

 

Here are some examples of problematic research questions and ideas for improving them.

Weak research question Problem Strong research question
What is sleep deprivation? Too simple. The answer could be a simple definition. How does sleep deprivation affect college students?
Is the media biased? Too broad. The debate on this question is so fraught, it would take a lifetime to address it fairly. How does media bias affect coverage of political candidates?
Is chocolate milk good for you? Too subjective. Opinion terms like good or bad, dangerous or safe, positive or negative, are vague and introduce bias into your question.  How does chocolate milk affect athletic performance?
Are genetically modified foods dangerous? Unclear. The term "dangerous" requires clarification. What impact do genetically modified foods have on food safety?
What is the current total student debt in the United States? Too simple. This question could be answered with one statistic. What can private colleges and universities do to reduce student debt?
How have diversity hiring practices at ACME Markets affected feelings of diversity and inclusion among its customer base?  Too narrow. This might be a great question to ask if you were conducting your own research study, including interviewing ACME's managers and staff, examining their hiring policies, and administering customer surveys. Most college assignments require smaller-scale research.  How does staff diversity in retail businesses affect customer satisfaction?