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What Makes a Good Research Question?


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If you're struggling through the process of writing a research question, you might start to see that there are some Goldilocks aspects of writing a good research question: There is a very narrow range for it to be considered good, and there are a lot of ways for it to be unsatisfactory. A good research question shouldn't be too broad or too narrow, it can't be too simple or too complex, and it has to be answerable but not easy to answer. If finding the balance within these contradictions feels paralyzing to you, don't fret! Keep reading to learn how to write an effective research question that will create a strong foundation for your research paper.

Regardless of whether you are writing a research question about modern science or you're analyzing 19th century literature through a new lens, you will follow the same basic steps when formulating your research question. However, your field of study might have specific requirements and standards for writing a good research question, so in addition to following the steps outlined here, make sure you know the expectations for your particular field before you decide on your research question.

Writing a good research question requires time and preparation. Do not commit to the first research question that pops into your mind. Choosing an unfortunate research question will actually make the writing process much more difficult, and it will ultimately take you longer and cause you more frustration. To save yourself from such a plight, take your time and follow the six steps described below, and ask yourself the list of checklist questions at the end. If you take the time to develop a good research question, your entire writing process will be easier as a result.

Step 1: Choose a topic that interests you

You will be spending quite a bit of time researching, writing, and thinking about this topic, so make sure to choose a topic that actually interests you. It is very difficult to write an effective paper if you do not care about the topic. If you are genuinely interested in the question and invested in the results, you will produce a better research paper while hopefully contributing to a topic that matters to you.

Step 2: Start broad

Identify a broad topic in your field that you would like to explore further. If you are interested in multiple topics, write them all down so you can easily evaluate your options. Look through this list and pick the topic that interests you most. Do not discard the list: You might need to refer back to this list later if you need to refocus, redirect, or totally change your research question.

Step 3: Brainstorm

Once you have selected a broad topic, perform a general internet search to begin brainstorming possible lines of inquiry. Write down every question that occurs to you as you skim articles and peruse academic journals on the topic. Once you have identified some important or unique questions, review your list to see if any question stands out to you. If you feel a strong connection to one particular question, select it for now and start doing some preliminary research on that question. Keep your list of brainstormed questions: You can refer to back to it later if you need to add depth or make your question more specific.

Step 4: Perform preliminary research

One of the most important aspects of a good research question is that it must be unique to you. Therefore, you have to think of a question that no one else has researched or a question that has not been researched in the specific way you are proposing. Once you have narrowed down your list of questions, check prominent publications in your field to make sure that previous researchers haven't already explored it. If you find papers or studies that are similar but not identical to yours, note the author(s) and publication(s) in case you want to use them as possible sources.

While you are skimming previous publications, look for gaps in the existing research. If you find a research gap in an area that interests you, add it to the list of research topics that you brainstormed in step three. Finding gaps in existing research might lead you to a valuable research question that will complement existing research.

If you find that someone else has already researched your exact question, go back to the lists you created in steps two and three, and explore ways to modify your question to make it more specific. You might have to repeat this process a few times until you find the perfect combination of factors.

Step 5: Decide what kind of research question you want to ask

Now that you have selected a topic, consider what you hope to learn through this research. Even if you do not know precisely what you hope to learn, asking yourself this question can help you decide whether to write a qualitative question or a quantitative question.

  • Qualitative research questions tend to be open-ended questions that explore people's experiences or beliefs to better understand a topic. These questions usually begin with "what" or "how," and they aim to generate information that is difficult to measure, such as people's attitudes, perceptions, or motivations.
  • Quantitative research questions usually generate quantifiable results that researchers can analyze to find causal relationships between variables. Quantitative research questions usually answer the question "why?" According to Professor Imed Bouchrika, quantitative research questions typically include the population to be studied, dependent and independent variables, and the research design to be used.

Once you've decided whether you're proposing a qualitative or quantitative research question, write down a rough draft version of your question. It doesn't have to be perfect: This is just a rough draft, so it is still subject to change as you go through the process.

Understanding Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

Step 6: Ensure that you can answer the question

Once you've confirmed that your research question is unique and no one has explored it in this way before, make sure that it is possible to answer your question. If you are researching in a scientific field, you will need to ensure that you can answer the question in an objective manner with supporting qualitative data, quantitative data, or a mix of the two. Consult journals and publications to see you can find adequate existing data to answer your research question. If the data does not currently exist, consider your time, resources, and page limits to decide whether you will be able to conduct research to obtain the necessary data. Go back to step two if you need to revise your question to make it answerable.

If you are creating a research question for a topic in the liberal arts field, there will probably not be existing quantifiable data in previous publications. Instead, make sure that you can argue your position in a knowledgeable and informed manner. Look for passages in the text that support your argument and search for quotes from other researchers that you can cite to strengthen your argument.

After going through the six steps outlined above, you will have a rough draft of your strong research question. To identify if you have written a good research question, ask yourself the following questions and revise your question accordingly:

  1. Can this question be answered with a perfunctory internet search? If so, then your question is too broad. Look for ways to focus the question, such as by applying it to a specific population or in a more specific context.
  2. Can this question be answered with a simple yes or no? If so, then you need to add some parameters or additional factors to your question to make it more specific. A good research question cannot be answered in one sentence, and it certainly can't be answered in just one word.
  3. Does this question elicit an opinion or value judgement? If so, then you need to keep refining this research question. A good research question should be open to academic analysis and interpretation, but it should not generate judgement or responses based solely on opinions or feelings.
  4. Can I adequately answer this question within the boundaries of this research paper? If not, then your research question is probably too broad. You do not want to end up writing a general overview on a topic, so look for ways to focus the question.
  5. Does this question allow for analysis and interpretation? If not, then return to steps two and three and see if you can expand on the question or add an element that makes it more complex.
  6. Does this question contribute to my field or provide a new perspective on an important topic?
  7. Is this research question thought-provoking? A good research question will inspire people to want to learn more. Does this question excite you and make you want to learn more?

If you have been struggling to write a good research question, follow the six steps outlined above and ask yourself these essential seven questions. If you follow this process, you will develop a powerful research question that will be the foundation for a great research paper.

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