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Starting Your Research Series

Steps to Develop Your Research Question

Now that you have an awareness of your research question criteria, how might you proceed with developing your own research question? As you start crafting your own research question, consider the following steps.

Step 1: Identify a broad topic of interest. 

  • Are you interested in immigration, student success, health disparities, pollution, data privacy, mental health, free speech, organic farming, music as a form of protest, or availability of internet services etc.???

Step 2: Start to think about other variables or sub-topics that can narrow and focus your research. 

  • Use the 4Ws of What? Where? Who? and When?  to think of possible variables or sub-topics.

What? Who? Where? When? 4Ws graphic

Sample Brainstorm with 4Ws: Here are a few possible variables or sub-topics for a broad topic related to water pollution.

WHAT? plastics, microplastics, microfiber contamination, plastic bottle waste, mercury, health ...

WHERE? oceans, Pacific ocean, surface waters, aquatic ecosystem, China, waterways, North America …

WHO? whales, aquatic life, shrimp, humans, children ...

WHEN? Last 10 years, historically, 20th century …

Step 3: Start to string some of your variables or sub-topics into a research question. 

You may not include every W in your question, and your question may have more than one W (what, where, who, when).


In the past 10 years (WHEN), what impact have microplastics (WHAT) had on aquatic life (WHO) in the Pacific Ocean (WHERE)?
To what extent is plastic bottle waste (WHAT) entering the aquatic ecosystem (WHAT) and impacting the health (WHAT) of children (WHO) in China (WHERE)?

Step 4: Make adjustments with your research criteria in mind.

  • As you start researching, you may find that you need to revise your research question.  This is a common part of the research process.  For instance, as you search, you may need to adjust one or more of your variables or sub-topics in order to broaden or narrow your research question’s scope.
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