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Writing 10 (Varnot): Research Questions

College Reading & Writing

Developing a Research Question Takes Research

Be curious

The goal of most research papers in college is to seek a possible answer to a particular question related to a topic. A research question, when not too broad or too narrow, helps guide and focus your paper.

The question should also be one in which you haven't decided on a pre-determined answer. Looking for sources that only support your view may be too limiting. Consider that the answer you think is "right" might not be supported by evidence. (This is hard to do!)

Brainstorm & do some research first

The research question isn't a question you make up at the top of your head. 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, and, even then, your question may change as you find more information later.

Ask questions

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

Be flexible

It's okay to continue to tweak your question; the end result should be that you have answered the question you've laid out in the introduction. Sometimes, you might have to adjust your introduction.


Keeping your research question in mind, if you can answer TRUE to the statements below, your research question is probably workable.

  1. It cannot simply be answered with a yes/no.
  2. It has social significance/a problem associated with it.
  3. There is reliable evidence available to address it.
  4. It has appropriate scope.

Research Proposal Writing Tip in Action

I didn't make this topic up at the top of my head. I read this book last year:

Here are some other sources that have since sparked my curiosity about this topic:

Developing a Reserarch Question

Steely Library NKU (4:33)


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

Topic: racial bias

Question 1:  How can society curtail racial bias? (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 with any depth. 

Most scholarly research examines fairly narrow topics and looks at relationships between concepts.  For example, racial bias is a pretty broad topic, but looking at specific groups of people in particular settings in relation to racial bias 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 racial bias as an example:

  • racial bias and African-American / Black students (who)
  • racial bias and school discipline (what)
  • racial bias and school discipline in the U.S. (where)

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

Question 2:  How can schools reduce racial bias in school punishments?

Start thinking about other questions you would need to address in order to answer your guiding question. For example, for Question 2, perhaps the following other questions would need to be addressed in the paper.

  • What are the rates of school suspensions among different racial/ethnic groups in the U.S.?
  • What might contribute to this difference? What are some of the issues affecting students of color outside of the school environment?
  • What are some strategies that schools can use to diminish racial bias in school punishments?