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Research Strategies & Tools OLD: Strategies


What is a research question?

A research question is a…

  • clear
  • focused
  • concise
  • complex
  • arguable

…question around which you center your research. You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate 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 “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.

Steps to developing a research question:
  1. 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.”
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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, “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?”
  5. Evaluate your question. After you’ve got a question or even a couple of question down on paper, evaluate these questions to realize if they would be effective research questions or if they need more revising.
    • 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.
  6. 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 argument? At this step, you are well on your way to having a focus for your research, constructing a thesis, and then writing out your argument in a paper.

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 whom the issue is harming (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: 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 Center

Beginning a research project with only a very broad topic?

Books have some valuable components that tend to be overlooked in the online environment that emphasizes journal articles.  They can help you narrow your topic into a specific question by giving you background information and by synthesizing many journal articles.   No one ever said that you had to read a book from cover-to-cover to extract information from it!

Use Google Books  or Library Search+ with a limit to just books to search within the contents of books for more precise targeting and discovery.

After narrowing to a specific question, search for articles which will fill in with more current and particularized information.


  Books Articles
Overall  In-depth, broad examination of a topic Original results of a specific research question or experiment
Analysis Deep analysis, broad historical perspective, synthesis of numerous research results and opinions Single focus without much historical overview or context
Useful Segments TOC, introduction, individual chapters, bibliography Less specific segments, more a single snapshot
Publication Cycle Lag time in publication means not as current More current
Length Longer Shorter

Literature Review

An evaluative report of the current state of the literature in a specific area or topic, not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • establish a theoretical framework for your topic / subject area
  • define key terms, definitions and terminology
  • identify studies, models, case studies etc supporting your topic
  • define / establish your area of study, ie your research topic.

Three key points:

  • Tell me what the research says (theory).
  • Tell me how the research was carried out (methodology).
  • Tell me what is missing, i.e. the gap that your research intends to fill..


How do you go about finding sources?

Essentially the same search processes you would use for gathering information on any paper, but you need to be sure to include the most current research - so JSTOR might  just not cut it.  The most efficient way is to look for authoritative summaries by scholars, bibliographical essays, to boost you in your search.


Finding Authoritative Summaries - by title and strategies