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Writing 10 (Porter, Spring 2024)

College Reading & Composition

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.

Finding the Right Scope for Your Topic

Narrow Your Topic or Research Question

It's very common to select a topic or formulate a question that starts out too broad

EXAMPLE OF AN OVERLY BROAD TOPIC:  To what extent are cyberattacks a problem for society?

  • What sort of cyberattacks? Think of the many reasons hackers might attack. Theft of personal information? Theft of financial data? Blackmail/ransom?
  • What aspect of society is being attacked? Individuals? Governments (state, municipal or federal)? Companies?
  • How are we measuring "extent?" Amount of personal accounts hacked? Number of companies breached?

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, hacking and cyber warfare are pretty broad topics, but looking at the relationship between hacking and financial data might be a more manageable topic

There are many ways to narrow a topic that is too broad by asking one or more W questions.  Let's use hacking as an example:

  • hacking and banking (what)
  • hacking and schools (what)
  • hacking and teenagers (who)
  • hacking and the United States (where)

Use how, what, or where (two or three) to develop a research question on the topic of hacking:

NARROWER QUESTION: How do hacking and cyberattacks on banks in the United States impact bank customers and banking services?

NARROWER QUESTION: How does hacking and cyberattacks on school systems in California affect the privacy of teenage students?

WHAT: hacking and cyberattacking, banks, schools
WHERE: United States, California
HOW: impact, effect
WHO: bank customers, teenage students, privacy