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WRI 101-01 (Webb, Spring 2022): Writing the Research Question

5WH Method

  • Who are the major figures associated with the topic? (e.g., Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, students, kittens)
  • What is the description of the topic? What is happening?
  • Where does the topic operate? (e.g., Eastern Europe, basal ganglia, California)
  • When is the timeframe for this topic? This can often be combined with “where” (e.g., Jurassic Era, antebellum American South, 21st-century inner-city Chicago)
  • Why is this significant to others in the field? Why is this happening?
  • How can your topic be tested? How do you describe the relationship between your concepts?

Finding the Right Scope for Your Topic

Narrow Your Topic

It's very common to select a topic that's too broad.  When the scope of your topic is too big, it's hard to dig through the huge volume of  information available to find something relevant.  It's also hard to write a paper or give a presentation of with any depth.  Most scholarly research examines fairly narrow topics and looks at relationships between concepts.  For example, COVID-19 is a huge topic, but looking at the relationship between COVID-19 and mask mandates might be a more manageable topic.

There are many ways to narrow a topic that is too broad.  Let's use COVID-19 as an example:


  • COVID-19 and the law (what)
  • COVID-19 and vaccine mandates (what)
  • COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy (what)
  • COVID-19 and California (where)
  • COVID-19 and Mexico (where)
  • COVID-19 and the elderly (who)
  • COVID-19 and Latinos (who)
  • COVID-19 and African Americans (who)
  • COVID-19 and 2020 (when)

Use these concepts develop a research question on the topic of COVID-19

  • Has COVID-19 (or the pandemic) had any effect on medical education?
  • How have Latinos in California been affected by COVID-19?
  • What successful measures exist to combat vaccine hesitancy?

Broaden Your Topic

It is possible to generate a topic that's too narrow.  When the scope of your topic is too small, there may not be enough information available for your paper or presentation.  For example, this affirmative action-related topic is probably too narrow:

Were Asian Americans in Fremont, California unduly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021?

To find enough information, you might need to broaden the who (change "Asian Americans" to "minorities") and the where (change Fremont to California) concepts in this question.  You might also need to omit the limited time frame.


"Unduly impacted" is too vague. What's "unduly?" You might solve this by making a comparison: Did Asian Americans have higher rates of COVID-19 than the rest of the population?

What sort of "impact?" Unemployment? Rates of infection? Be specific.

"Summer of 2021" is also too vague. Specify a date range.

Here are a few more examples of narrowing a broad topic down to a manageable topic one step at a time.

  • political correctness > political correctness and universities > Are universities equally tolerant to politically correct and politically incorrect viewpoints?
  • social media > social media and bullying > The effect of social media on bullying behaviors among U.S. teenagers
  • academic freedom > academic freedom and politic* > Does academic freedom exist on both sides of the political aisle? 

Narrow your Research Question with the 5 Ws

About Research Questions

Forming a Research Question

  • By asking a research question, you are keeping an open mind about what the research may reveal. 
  • As you develop a research question, consider these criteria.
  • If you have an existing research question, see if your question is TRUE for these five criteria.  If so, then your research question is probably workable. 
thought bubble question


Your research question ...

  1. is not easily answered with a simple yes or no. 
It has some substance and requires explanation.
  1. has an underlying problem with social significance (local, national or international). 
It is important to someone other than just you!
  1. poses a genuine question and aims for neutrality.
It avoids using loaded language or suggesting a pre-determined answer.
  1. can be answered with reliable evidence.
It is re-searchable.  Others have already been contributing to this conversation.
  1. has appropriate scope.
It is not too narrow, nor too broad; it does not leave you with too much or too little information. 

Together: You will have to do some preliminary research to really discover if all of these statements are TRUE for your proposed research question.

Topics, Concepts & Terms

working with topics

images from

Quiz Question #1

Is this topic too broad, too narrow, or just about right?

How did banks contribute to the 2008 international financial crisis?

Quiz Question #1
Too broad: 13 votes (72.22%)
Too narrow: 2 votes (11.11%)
Just about right: 3 votes (16.67%)
Total Votes: 18

Quiz Question #2

Is this topic too broad, too narrow, or just about right?

What impact do Olympic heroes have on youth sports programs in Rochester, New York?

Quiz Question #2
Too broad: 1 votes (5.26%)
Too narrow: 9 votes (47.37%)
Just about right: 9 votes (47.37%)
Total Votes: 19

Quiz Question #3

Is this topic too broad, too narrow, or just about right?

How does American food culture shape the eating behaviors of children?

Quiz Question #3
Too broad: 3 votes (17.65%)
Too narrow: 0 votes (0%)
Just about right: 14 votes (82.35%)
Total Votes: 17

Starting your research

There's an excellent tutorial on beginning the research process, available here: . If you'd like to know more about writing a good research question, take a look at the module on developing a research question.