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- Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples
Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples
Published on October 26, 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on January 30, 2023.
A research question pinpoints exactly what you want to find out in your work. A good research question is essential to guide your research paper , dissertation , or thesis .
All research questions should be:
- Focused on a single problem or issue
- Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
- Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
- Specific enough to answer thoroughly
- Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
- Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
Table of contents
How to write a research question, what makes a strong research question, using sub-questions to strengthen your main research question, research questions quiz, frequently asked questions about research questions.
You can follow these steps to develop a strong research question:
- Choose your topic
- Do some preliminary reading about the current state of the field
- Narrow your focus to a specific niche
- Identify the research problem that you will address
The way you frame your question depends on what your research aims to achieve. The table below shows some examples of how you might formulate questions for different purposes.
Using your research problem to develop your research question
Note that while most research questions can be answered with various types of research , the way you frame your question should help determine your choices.
Research questions anchor your whole project, so it’s important to spend some time refining them. The criteria below can help you evaluate the strength of your research question.
Focused and researchable
Feasible and specific, complex and arguable, relevant and original, prevent plagiarism. run a free check..
Chances are that your main research question likely can’t be answered all at once. That’s why sub-questions are important: they allow you to answer your main question in a step-by-step manner.
Good sub-questions should be:
- Less complex than the main question
- Focused only on 1 type of research
- Presented in a logical order
Here are a few examples of descriptive and framing questions:
- Descriptive: According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented?
- Descriptive: Which countries have a bank tax/levy on financial transactions?
- Framing: How should a bank tax/levy on financial transactions look at a European level?
Keep in mind that sub-questions are by no means mandatory. They should only be asked if you need the findings to answer your main question. If your main question is simple enough to stand on its own, it’s okay to skip the sub-question part. As a rule of thumb, the more complex your subject, the more sub-questions you’ll need.
Try to limit yourself to 4 or 5 sub-questions, maximum. If you feel you need more than this, it may be indication that your main research question is not sufficiently specific. In this case, it’s is better to revisit your problem statement and try to tighten your main question up.
The way you present your research problem in your introduction varies depending on the nature of your research paper . A research paper that presents a sustained argument will usually encapsulate this argument in a thesis statement .
A research paper designed to present the results of empirical research tends to present a research question that it seeks to answer. It may also include a hypothesis —a prediction that will be confirmed or disproved by your research.
As you cannot possibly read every source related to your topic, it’s important to evaluate sources to assess their relevance. Use preliminary evaluation to determine whether a source is worth examining in more depth.
- Reading abstracts , prefaces, introductions , and conclusions
- Looking at the table of contents to determine the scope of the work
- Consulting the index for key terms or the names of important scholars
A research hypothesis is your proposed answer to your research question. The research hypothesis usually includes an explanation (“ x affects y because …”).
A statistical hypothesis, on the other hand, is a mathematical statement about a population parameter. Statistical hypotheses always come in pairs: the null and alternative hypotheses . In a well-designed study , the statistical hypotheses correspond logically to the research hypothesis.
Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement .
However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:
- Feasibility and specificity
- Relevance and originality
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How to Write a Research Question
What is a research question? A research question is the question around which you center your research. It should be:
- clear : it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
- focused : it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
- concise : it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
- complex : it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
- arguable : its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.
You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate about.
The question you ask should be developed for the discipline you are studying. A question appropriate for Biology, for instance, is different from an appropriate one in Political Science or Sociology. If you are developing your question for a course other than first-year composition, you may want to discuss your ideas for a research question with your professor.
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 “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.
Steps to developing a research question:
- Choose an interesting general topic. Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying. 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 issues are scholars and researchers discussing, when it comes to your topic? What questions occur to you as you read these articles?
- 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 the question you are developing?
- Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “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?”
- 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.
- 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. They often begin with “How” or “Why.”
- Begin your research . After you’ve come up with a question, think about the possible paths your research could take. What sources should you consult as you seek answers to your question? What research process will ensure that you find a variety of perspectives and responses to your question?
Sample Research Questions
Unclear: How should social networking sites address the harm they cause? Clear: What action should social networking sites like MySpace 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 (MySpace and Facebook), the type of potential harm (privacy issues), and who may be experiencing that harm (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation. 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 piece, 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. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.
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How to Write a Good Research Question (w/ Examples)
What is a Research Question?
A research question is the main question that your study sought or is seeking to answer. A clear research question guides your research paper or thesis and states exactly what you want to find out, giving your work a focus and objective. Learning how to write a hypothesis or research question is the start to composing any thesis, dissertation, or research paper. It is also one of the most important sections of a research proposal .
A good research question not only clarifies the writing in your study; it provides your readers with a clear focus and facilitates their understanding of your research topic, as well as outlining your study’s objectives. Before drafting the paper and receiving research paper editing (and usually before performing your study), you should write a concise statement of what this study intends to accomplish or reveal.
Research Question Writing Tips
Listed below are the important characteristics of a good research question:
A good research question should:
- Be clear and provide specific information so readers can easily understand the purpose.
- Be focused in its scope and narrow enough to be addressed in the space allowed by your paper
- Be relevant and concise and express your main ideas in as few words as possible, like a hypothesis.
- Be precise and complex enough that it does not simply answer a closed “yes or no” question, but requires an analysis of arguments and literature prior to its being considered acceptable.
- Be arguable or testable so that answers to the research question are open to scrutiny and specific questions and counterarguments.
Some of these characteristics might be difficult to understand in the form of a list. Let’s go into more detail about what a research question must do and look at some examples of research questions.
The research question should be specific and focused
Research questions that are too broad are not suitable to be addressed in a single study. One reason for this can be if there are many factors or variables to consider. In addition, a sample data set that is too large or an experimental timeline that is too long may suggest that the research question is not focused enough.
A specific research question means that the collective data and observations come together to either confirm or deny the chosen hypothesis in a clear manner. If a research question is too vague, then the data might end up creating an alternate research problem or hypothesis that you haven’t addressed in your Introduction section .
The research question should be based on the literature
An effective research question should be answerable and verifiable based on prior research because an effective scientific study must be placed in the context of a wider academic consensus. This means that conspiracy or fringe theories are not good research paper topics.
Instead, a good research question must extend, examine, and verify the context of your research field. It should fit naturally within the literature and be searchable by other research authors.
References to the literature can be in different citation styles and must be properly formatted according to the guidelines set forth by the publishing journal, university, or academic institution. This includes in-text citations as well as the Reference section .
The research question should be realistic in time, scope, and budget
There are two main constraints to the research process: timeframe and budget.
A proper research question will include study or experimental procedures that can be executed within a feasible time frame, typically by a graduate doctoral or master’s student or lab technician. Research that requires future technology, expensive resources, or follow-up procedures is problematic.
A researcher’s budget is also a major constraint to performing timely research. Research at many large universities or institutions is publicly funded and is thus accountable to funding restrictions.
The research question should be in-depth
Research papers, dissertations and theses , and academic journal articles are usually dozens if not hundreds of pages in length.
A good research question or thesis statement must be sufficiently complex to warrant such a length, as it must stand up to the scrutiny of peer review and be reproducible by other scientists and researchers.
Research Question Types
Qualitative and quantitative research are the two major types of research, and it is essential to develop research questions for each type of study.
Quantitative Research Questions
Quantitative research questions are specific. A typical research question involves the population to be studied, dependent and independent variables, and the research design.
In addition, quantitative research questions connect the research question and the research design. In addition, it is not possible to answer these questions definitively with a “yes” or “no” response. For example, scientific fields such as biology, physics, and chemistry often deal with “states,” in which different quantities, amounts, or velocities drastically alter the relevance of the research.
As a consequence, quantitative research questions do not contain qualitative, categorical, or ordinal qualifiers such as “is,” “are,” “does,” or “does not.”
Categories of quantitative research questions
Qualitative research questions.
In quantitative research, research questions have the potential to relate to broad research areas as well as more specific areas of study. Qualitative research questions are less directional, more flexible, and adaptable compared with their quantitative counterparts. Thus, studies based on these questions tend to focus on “discovering,” “explaining,” “elucidating,” and “exploring.”
Categories of qualitative research questions
Quantitative and qualitative research question examples.
Good and Bad Research Question Examples
Below are some good (and not-so-good) examples of research questions that researchers can use to guide them in crafting their own research questions.
Research Question Example 1
The first research question is too vague in both its independent and dependent variables. There is no specific information on what “exposure” means. Does this refer to comments, likes, engagement, or just how much time is spent on the social media platform?
Second, there is no useful information on what exactly “affected” means. Does the subject’s behavior change in some measurable way? Or does this term refer to another factor such as the user’s emotions?
Research Question Example 2
In this research question, the first example is too simple and not sufficiently complex, making it difficult to assess whether the study answered the question. The author could really only answer this question with a simple “yes” or “no.” Further, the presence of data would not help answer this question more deeply, which is a sure sign of a poorly constructed research topic.
The second research question is specific, complex, and empirically verifiable. One can measure program effectiveness based on metrics such as attendance or grades. Further, “bullying” is made into an empirical, quantitative measurement in the form of recorded disciplinary actions.
Steps for Writing a Research Question
Good research questions are relevant, focused, and meaningful. It can be difficult to come up with a good research question, but there are a few steps you can follow to make it a bit easier.
1. Start with an interesting and relevant topic
Choose a research topic that is interesting but also relevant and aligned with your own country’s culture or your university’s capabilities. Popular academic topics include healthcare and medical-related research. However, if you are attending an engineering school or humanities program, you should obviously choose a research question that pertains to your specific study and major.
Below is an embedded graph of the most popular research fields of study based on publication output according to region. As you can see, healthcare and the basic sciences receive the most funding and earn the highest number of publications.
2. Do preliminary research
You can begin doing preliminary research once you have chosen a research topic. Two objectives should be accomplished during this first phase of research. First, you should undertake a preliminary review of related literature to discover issues that scholars and peers are currently discussing. With this method, you show that you are informed about the latest developments in the field.
Secondly, identify knowledge gaps or limitations in your topic by conducting a preliminary literature review . It is possible to later use these gaps to focus your research question after a certain amount of fine-tuning.
3. Narrow your research to determine specific research questions
You can focus on a more specific area of study once you have a good handle on the topic you want to explore. Focusing on recent literature or knowledge gaps is one good option.
By identifying study limitations in the literature and overlooked areas of study, an author can carve out a good research question. The same is true for choosing research questions that extend or complement existing literature.
4. Evaluate your research question
Make sure you evaluate the research question by asking the following questions:
Is my research question clear?
The resulting data and observations that your study produces should be clear. For quantitative studies, data must be empirical and measurable. For qualitative, the observations should be clearly delineable across categories.
Is my research question focused and specific?
A strong research question should be specific enough that your methodology or testing procedure produces an objective result, not one left to subjective interpretation. Open-ended research questions or those relating to general topics can create ambiguous connections between the results and the aims of the study.
Is my research question sufficiently complex?
The result of your research should be consequential and substantial (and fall sufficiently within the context of your field) to warrant an academic study. Simply reinforcing or supporting a scientific consensus is superfluous and will likely not be well received by most journal editors.
Editing Your Research Question
Your research question should be fully formulated well before you begin drafting your research paper. However, you can receive English paper editing and proofreading services at any point in the drafting process. Language editors with expertise in your academic field can assist you with the content and language in your Introduction section or other manuscript sections. And if you need further assistance or information regarding paper compositions, in the meantime, check out our academic resources , which provide dozens of articles and videos on a variety of academic writing and publication topics.
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Dissertation Research Question Examples
Published by Owen Ingram at August 13th, 2021 , Revised On February 9, 2023
A dissertation is an important milestone no matter what academic level or subject it is. You will be asked to write a dissertation on a topic of your choice and make a substantial contribution to academic and scientific communities.
The project will start with the planning and designing of a project before the actual write-up phase. There are many stages in the dissertation process , but the most important is developing a research question that guides your research.
If you are starting your dissertation, you will have to conduct preliminary research to find a problem and research gap as the first step of the process. The second step is to write dissertation research questions that specify your topic and the relevant problem you want to address.
All research questions should be focused, researchable, feasible to answer, specific to find results, complex, and relevant to your field of study. The research question’s factors will be; research problem , research type , project length, and time frame.
Research questions provide boundaries to your research project and provide a clear approach to collect and compile data. Understanding your research question better is necessary to find unique facts and figures to publish your research.
Search and study some dissertation research question examples or research questions relevant to your field of study before writing your own research question.
Research Questions for Dissertation Examples
Below are 10 examples of dissertation research questions that will enable you to develop research questions for your research.
These examples will help you to check whether your chosen research questions can be addressed or whether they are too broad to find a conclusive answer.
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Penning your dissertation proposal can be a rather daunting task. Here are comprehensive guidelines on how to write a dissertation proposal.
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Developing a Good Research Question
Developing a good research question is the key to getting your dissertation done efficiently and to making an original contribution to your discipline. Your dissertation question should meet six criteria.
Identify the Theoretical Construct
A good research question should clearly identify the theoretical construct you are studying. For example, if you are interested in figuring out the processes by which parents transmit their political perspectives to their children, the theoretical construct you are studying is "transmission of political perspectives." If you are interested in how technology innovations in teaching improve student performance, your theoretical concept is "effectiveness of innovation." Notice that the theoretical construct is the phenomenon, event or experience you want to learn more about.
Recognize the Theoretical Construct
A research question should contain some suggestion of recognizability of the theoretical construct. This means that the research question articulates the theoretical construct in a way that is specific enough so you will know it when you see it as you are coding for it in your data. In other words, it supplies a clear unit of analysis that allows you to tell the difference between that construct and other constructs relatively easily. To accomplish recognizability, you should word the construct in a way that is concrete and specific.
Perhaps an example will help clarify this idea of recognizability. A student started her dissertation planning with a theoretical construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college." While certainly an important construct, it is too large because the student would have a difficult time recognizing the construct in the data. It involves a potentially large number of different constructs, including women's experiences of raising children while going to school, degree of support from family members, responses of other students, educational accomplishments, emotions the women experience, and on and on and on. There is virtually nothing having to do with nontraditional women college students that would not count as part of the construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college."
A more specific theoretical construct would be "nontraditional women's experiences of discrimination in the classroom" or "nontraditional women's use of support services on campus." The recognizability here is that the theoretical construct is focused on one aspect of nontraditional women's experiences and allows the student to discriminate between it and other constructs that are a part of nontraditional women's experiences in college. As you formulate your research question, think about how you will code data with that question, looking for examples of the theoretical construct you are considering featuring in your research question. Will you be able to locate it and distinguish it easily from other constructs that appear in your data?
Transcendence of Data
Your research question should meet the criterion of transcendence of data. Except in a few instances, your research question should not include mention of the specific data you are using to investigate your question. Many different kinds of data can be used to answer your question, so don't confine it to the one type of data you plan to study. You want your question to be more abstract than those specific data.
For example, if you want to study resistance strategies used by marginalized groups to challenge institutions, you can use as your data a social movement, works of art by politically motivated artists, the songs sung by union organizers, or the strategies used by Mexican immigrants to improve their status in the United States, to name a few. You want your study to contribute to a significant theoretical conversation in your field, and it can do that more easily if your question is not tied to one particular kind of data. A research question on the topic of resistance that transcends the data, then, might be, "What is the nature of the resistance strategies used by subordinate groups in their efforts to challenge hegemonic institutions?"
As an example where the criterion of transcendence of data was violated in a research question, consider the proposal of a theoretical construct of "accounting practices used in children's theatres in Detroit." Here, a theoretical construct is the same as the data. The student is conflating the construct in the research question with the data used to answer the question. As a result, the story has limited interest to other readers. The students certainly could collect data for a study concerning accounting practices in children's theatre groups in Detroit, but the construct should be larger than that. Perhaps it could be something like "accounting practices in nonprofit arts organizations."
There are a few kinds of dissertation where the criterion of transcendence of data in the research question does not apply. These are dissertations in which researchers want to find out about a particular phenomenon, so the research is specifically about that phenomenon. For example, someone who is interested in the strategies used by Alcoholics Anonymous to attract members would want to include Alcoholics Anonymous in the research question. In this case, the researcher sees something unique and significant about that particular organization, in contrast to other treatment approaches, and sets out to understand it specifically.
There are some fields, too, where the data are typically included in the research question in dissertations. History is one. Dissertations in this field are about a particular place and time, and their purpose is to explore that place and time. Thus, those particulars are included in the theoretical construct of the research question. For example, a research question for a history dissertation might be, "How was a counter-culture identity sustained in Humboldt County, California, in the 1980s and 1990s?" The discipline of English is another one where research questions may include mention of data. Scholars in English are often interested in a writer or group of writers or a particular type of literature, and those would be included in the research question. An example is: "How do troll images function in the narratives of Scandinavian writers between 1960 and 1990?"
Contribute to Understanding the Construct
Your research question should identify your study's contribution to an understanding of the theoretical construct. Your research question should name what happens to the theoretical construct in your study and what you are doing with it in your study or what interests you about it. This contribution should be developed from the theoretical conversations in your discipline and should reflect a specialized knowledge of your discipline. For example, the new contribution you might be making is to begin to suggest the communication processes by which political beliefs are transmitted within families. You know that such beliefs (the theoretical construct) get transmitted. Your new contribution will be to explain some of the processes by which the transmission happens. Meeting this criterion in your research question forecasts the contributions to the discipline you'll discuss in your conclusion.
The Capacity of Surprise
Your research question should have the capacity to surprise. You should not already know the answer to the research question you're asking. You want to be surprised by what you find out. If you already know the answer to your question, you don't need to do the study. Moreover, if you know the answer, you aren't really doing research. Instead, you are selecting and coding data to report on and advocate for a position you already hold.
So, for example, using the data of immigrant narratives, a research question might be, "How do traumatic events produce long-term negative effects on individuals?" This already assumes that immigration inevitably traumatizes individuals and there are no possibilities other than to experience immigration negatively. There is not likely to be any surprise in the findings because the question articulated what was expected. Continuing in this direction, one could have found examples of negative effects, but the contribution to the discipline (and future ability to publish) would have been greatly diminished.
A research question that is robust has the capacity to generate complex results. Your question should have the capacity to produce multiple insights about various aspects of the theoretical construct you are exploring. It should not be a question to which the answer is "yes" or "no" because such an answer is not a complex result. Research questions that typically produce robust findings often begin with:
- What is the nature of . . .
- What are the functions of . . .
- What are the mechanisms by which . . .
- What factors affect . . .
- What strategies are used . . .
- What are the effects of . . .
- What is the relationship between . . .
- Under what conditions do . . .
You undoubtedly have seen dissertations or journal articles in which there is more than one research question. Should you have more than one question in your study? Maybe, but it is discouraged. In some cases, studies contain more than one question because researchers have not thought carefully enough about what they want to find out. As a result, they take a scattershot approach and try to get close to the question they want to answer by asking about many things. A better approach is to aim for one research question and to think carefully about what it is. Refine it sufficiently so that it really gets at the key thing you want to find out.
Another reason studies sometimes include many research questions is because students confuse research questions with the questions they will use as prompts for coding their data. The many research questions are really just guides for coding data. In one study about online chat rooms and whether they have the capacity for deep culture, you may find this list of research questions:
- What artifacts do chat rooms use as the basis for developing culture?
- What norms characterize chat rooms?
- What processes are used to socialize new members into chat rooms?
- What mechanisms are used in chat rooms to repair breaches of organizational norms?
These questions are not separate research questions as much as they are questions that the researcher will use to guide an analysis of the data. They are methodological guidelines that will help in the coding of the data. Remember that a research question is what the dissertation is about. It produces the title of the dissertation.
There are some cases when more than one research question is warranted. When a study has more than one research question, it tends to be when basic information about a theoretical construct does not exist, and you need to know basic information before you can investigate a process that characterizes the construct.
Be sure to spend time making sure your research question is a good one before you get too far along in your study.
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“The central question that you ask or hypothesis you frame drives your research: it defines your purpose.” Bryan Greetham, How to Write Your Undergraduate Dissertation
This page gives some help and guidance in developing a realistic research question. It also considers the role of sub-questions and how these can influence your methodological choices.
Choosing your research topic
You may have been provided with a list of potential topics or even specific questions to choose from. It is more common for you to have to come up with your own ideas and then refine them with the help of your tutor. This is a crucial decision as you will be immersing yourself in it for a long time.
Some students struggle to find a topic that is sufficiently significant and yet researchable within the limitations of an undergraduate project. You may feel overwhelmed by the freedom to choose your own topic but you could get ideas by considering the following:
Choose a topic that you find interesting . This may seem obvious but a lot of students go for what they think will be easy over what they think will be interesting - and regret it when they realise nothing is particularly easy and they are bored by the work. Think back over your lectures or talks from visiting speakers - was there anything you really enjoyed? Was there anything that left you with questions?
Choose something distinct . Whilst at undergraduate level you do not have to find something completely unique, if you find something a bit different you have more opportunity to come to some interesting conclusions. Have you some unique experiences that you can bring: personal biography, placements, study abroad etc?
Don't make your topic too wide . If your topic is too wide, it will be harder to develop research questions that you can actually answer in the context of a small research project.
Don't make your work too narrow . If your topic is too narrow, you will not be able to expand on the ideas sufficiently and make useful conclusions. You may also struggle to find enough literature to support it.
Scope out the field before deciding your topic . This is especially important if you have a few different options and are not sure which to pick. Spend a little time researching each one to get a feel for the amount of literature that exists and any particular avenues that could be worth exploring.
Think about your future . Some topics may fit better than others with your future plans, be they for further study or employment. Becoming more expert in something that you may have to be interviewed about is never a bad thing!
Once you have an idea (or even a few), speak to your tutor. They will advise on whether it is the right sort of topic for a dissertation or independent study. They have a lot of experience and will know if it is too much to take on, has enough material to build on etc.
Developing a research question or hypothesis
Research question vs hypothesis.
First, it may be useful to explain the difference between a research question and a hypothesis. A research question is simply a question that your research will address and hopefully answer (or give an explanation of why you couldn't answer it). A hypothesis is a statement that suggests how you expect something to function or behave (and which you would test to see if it actually happens or not).
Research question examples
- How significant is league table position when students choose their university?
- What impact can a diagnosis of depression have on physical health?
Note that these are open questions - i.e. they cannot be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no'. This is the best form of question.
- Students primarily choose their university based on league table position.
- A diagnosis of depression can impact physical health.
Note that these are things that you can test to see if they are true or false. This makes them more definite then research questions - but you can still answer them more fully than 'no they don't' or 'yes it does'. For example, in the above examples you would look to see how relevant other factors were when choosing universities and in what ways physical health may be impacted.
For more examples of the same topic formulated as hypotheses, research questions and paper titles see those given at the bottom of this document from Oakland University: Formulation of Research Hypothesis
Which do you need?
Generally, research questions are more common in the humanities, social sciences and business, whereas hypotheses are more common in the sciences. This is not a hard rule though, talk things through with your supervisor to see which they are expecting or which they think fits best with your topic.
What makes a good research question or hypothesis?
Unless you are undertaking a systematic review as your research method, you will develop your research question as a result of reviewing the literature on your broader topic. After all, it is only by seeing what research has already been done (or not) that you can justify the need for your question or your approach to answering it. At the end of that process, you should be able to come up with a question or hypothesis that is:
- Clear (easily understandable)
- Focused (specific not vague or huge)
- Answerable (the data is available and analysable in the time frame)
- Relevant (to your area of study)
- Significant (it is worth answering)
You can try a few out, using a table like this (yours would all be in the same discipline):
A similar, though different table is available from the University of California: What makes a good research topic? The completed table has some supervisor comments which may also be helpful.
Ultimately, your final research question will be mutually agreed between yourself and your supervisor - but you should always bring your own ideas to the conversation.
The role of sub-questions
Your main research question will probably still be too big to answer easily. This is where sub-questions come in. They are specific, narrower questions that you can answer directly from your data.
So, looking at the question " How much do online users know and care about how their self-images can be used by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook? " from the table above, the sub-questions could be:
- What rights do the terms and conditions of signing up for Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook accounts give those companies regarding the use of self-images?
- What proportion of users read the terms and conditions when creating accounts with these companies?
- How aware are users of the rights they are giving away regarding their self-images when creating accounts with these companies?
- How comfortable are users with giving away these rights?
Together, the answers to your sub-questions should enable you to answer the overarching research question.
How do you answer your sub-questions?
Depending on the type of dissertation/project your are undertaking, some (or all) the questions may be answered with information collected from the literature and some (or none) may be answered by analysing data directly collected as part of your primary empirical research .
In the above example, the first question would be answered by documentary analysis of the relevant terms and conditions, the second by a mixture of reviewing the literature and analysing survey responses from participants and the last two also by analysing survey responses. Different projects will require different approaches.
Some sub-questions could be answered by reviewing the literature and others from empirical study.
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Developing research questions
It is likely that at some point during your degree you will be required to create your own research question. The research question states the specific issue or problem that your assignment will focus on. It also outlines the task that you will need to complete.
There is no universal set of criteria for a good research question. Different disciplines have different priorities and requirements. A good research question for a history paper will differ from a good research question for a biology paper. In general, however, a good research question should be:
- Clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do.
- Not too broad and not too narrow. The question should have an appropriate scope. If the question is too broad it will not be possible to answer it thoroughly within the word limit. If it is too narrow you will not have enough to write about and you will struggle to develop a strong argument (see the activity below for examples).
- Not too easy to answer. For example, the question should require more than a simple yes or no answer.
- Not too difficult to answer. You must be able to answer the question thoroughly within the given timeframe and word limit.
- Researchable. You must have access to a suitable amount of quality research materials, such as academic books and refereed journal articles.
- Analytical rather than descriptive. In other words, your research question should allow you to produce an analysis of an issue or problem rather than a simple description of it (more on this below).
Activity: Is the question too broad or too narrow?
Imagine that you have been asked to write a 2000 word essay about nuclear power in Australia. Which of these three options is the best in terms of its scope? Drag and drop to match each question with the most accurate description of its scope.
How to create a research question
1. determine the requirements.
Before you can construct a good research question you will need to determine the requirements of your assignment.
What is the purpose of this assignment? Is it to test a proposition? Is it to evaluate a set of data? Is it to state and defend an argument? Check the assignment instructions and discuss the purpose with your tutor or lecturer.
Determining the purpose will help you to choose the most appropriate topic and word your question in the most useful way.
2. Choose a topic
Have you been given a list of topics to choose from or can you choose your own? Check the assignment instructions and if you are still in doubt discuss the requirements with your tutor or lecturer.
The best approach is to choose a topic that you are interested in. If you are interested in your topic you are more likely to invest more time, effort, and creativity into your research and writing. The greater your interest, the more likely it is that you will produce an assignment that is interesting to read.
3. Conduct preliminary research
Before you write your question it is advisable to read a small number of relevant academic sources. Limit your reading to recently published material and perhaps one or two influential works on the topic. The goal here is to familiarise yourself with the key debates in academic writing on the topic.
Reading in order to develop a research question is different from reading in order to answer it. Focus on the main ideas and arguments (these are usually found in the introduction and the conclusion). You don’t need to read every word or take down extensive notes at this stage, as you will probably come back to the text at a later date.
4. Narrow down your topic
Having conducted some preliminary research you should now be in a position to narrow down your topic.
In most cases you will need to narrow down your focus to a specific issue or debate within the broader topic. This is because it is much more effective to cover a single issue or dimension of a topic in depth than to skim the surface of several.
There are several ways that you might go about narrowing down your topic:
- Think about the subtopics, specific issues, and key debates that exist within the broader topic.
- Think about the value of focusing on a particular period of time, a particular geographical location, a particular organisation, or a particular group of people.
- Think about what you want to say in your assignment. What are the key points and arguments that you want to get across? Which subtopic, timeframe or other limitation would allow you to make these points in the most effective way?
Activity: Narrowing down your topic
- Create three columns on a piece of paper, in a word document, or in a spreadsheet.
- Select a broad topic for an upcoming assignment or choose a topic that you are interested in.
- In the first column write down the items contained in the first column below. Add any other items that may be relevant to your topic.
- In the second column write down potential sub-topics and other limitations. If you get stuck use the examples in the second column below to guide you.
- In the third column write the potential value of what you have written in the second column. What would that sub-topic or other limitation allow you to argue or demonstrate?
- Circle or highlight the items in column two that have the strongest potential value.
If you get stuck use the example below to guide you.
5. Write your question
Now that you have narrowed down your topic you can turn your attention to the wording of your research question.
As mentioned previously, the research question must outline a clear task that you will need to complete.
Remember that you will need to keep the purpose of your assignment in mind when thinking about the wording of your question and that the purpose will differ from discipline to discipline (see 1: Determine the Requirements).
In general, however, a good research question requires you to analyse an issue or problem. How and why questions are therefore more useful than what or describe questions. Other useful words that you might use are critique, argue, examine and evaluate . For definitions of these terms see Instruction Words .
Activity: Which is the best worded question?
Imagine that you have been asked to write an essay about earthquakes. The broad topic that you have chosen is the social impact of earthquakes. You have narrowed down your topic and decided to focus on the issue of homelessness caused by the Haitian earthquake of 2010. You are particularly interested in why there were high levels of homelessness several years after the earthquake. Which of these three options is the best research question? Drag and drop to match each question with the most accurate description of its effectiveness as a research question.
How to write a research question · Choose your topic · Do some preliminary reading about the current state of the field · Narrow your focus to a
Choose an interesting general topic. Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying. · Do some
Research Question Writing Tips · Be clear and provide specific information so readers can easily understand the purpose. · Be focused in its scope
They are gener- ally not cited, since they mainly give an overview of a topic. Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a
All research questions should be focused, researchable, feasible to answer, specific to find results, complex, and relevant to your field of
Make the research question as specific and concise as possible to ensure clarity. Avoid using words or terms that don't add to the meaning of
What is the nature of . . . · What are the functions of . . . · What are the mechanisms by which . . . · What factors affect . . . · What strategies are used . . .
A good research question is essential to guide your research paper, project, or thesis. It pinpoints exactly what you want to find out and
Choosing your research topic · Choose a topic that you find interesting. · Choose something distinct. · Don't make your topic too wide. · Don't make
Developing research questions · Clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do. · Not too broad and not too