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Writing 101 (Toconis): Research Questions

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.


Broad topic: Sleep habits

  • Who: college students
  • What: academic success

Most scholarly research examines fairly narrow topics and looks at relationships between concepts. For example, sleep habits is a broad topic, but looking at the relationship between sleep habits and academic success might be a more manageable topic.

Research Question: "How do sleep habits affect the academic success of college students?"

But how did I get there? I did have to do some pre-research to find an angle, but the W/H method helped me brainstorm possibilities to investigate. After some quick searching, I saw that there were articles related to this topic. I had to try it out before committing to this investigation. I can possibly expand my review to include how to combat poor sleep patterns.

The overall research question serves as my guide.

Research Questions Guide Your Paper

When the scope of your paper is too big, it's hard to dig through information & to write a paper with any depth. The goal of most research papers in is to seek a possible answer to a specific question. A focused research question helps guide your paper.

Watch the "Developing a Research Question" for a more in-depth explanation & examples.

Steely Library NKU (4:33)

Brainstorm & Do Some Pre-Research

It's normal to start with a broad topic in mind. After doing some brainstorming about a topic, you will need to do some reading to find an angle to pursue, &, even then, your question may change as you find more information later.

Watch the "Mapping Your Research Idea" video for a guided brainstorming exercise.

UCLA Libraries (2:52)

Ask More Questions

From your pre-research, think about questions you might be able to ask regarding the topic. Most scholarly research examines fairly narrow topics & looks at relationships between concepts. One way to limit the scope of your topic is to ask who, what, where, when, why, & how questions.

Watch the "Using the 5Ws to Develop a Research Questions" video to see this questioning strategy in action.

New Literacies Alliance (2:57)