Developing research questions

It is likely that at some point during your degree you will be required to create your own research question. The research question states the specific issue or problem that your assignment will focus on. It also outlines the task that you will need to complete.

There is no universal set of criteria for a good research question. Different disciplines have different priorities and requirements. A good research question for a history paper will differ from a good research question for a biology paper. In general, however, a good research question should be:

  • Clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do.
  • Not too broad and not too narrow. The question should have an appropriate scope. If the question is too broad it will not be possible to answer it thoroughly within the word limit. If it is too narrow you will not have enough to write about and you will struggle to develop a strong argument (see the activity below for examples).
  • Not too easy to answer. For example, the question should require more than a simple yes or no answer.
  • Not too difficult to answer. You must be able to answer the question thoroughly within the given timeframe and word limit.
  • Researchable. You must have access to a suitable amount of quality research materials, such as academic books and refereed journal articles.
  • Analytical rather than descriptive. In other words, your research question should allow you to produce an analysis of an issue or problem rather than a simple description of it (more on this below).

Activity: Is the question too broad or too narrow?

Imagine that you have been asked to write a 2000 word essay about nuclear power in Australia. Which of these three options is the best in terms of its scope? Drag and drop to match each question with the most accurate description of its scope.

How to create a research question

1. Determine the requirements

Before you can construct a good research question you will need to determine the requirements of your assignment.

What is the purpose of this assignment? Is it to test a proposition? Is it to evaluate a set of data? Is it to state and defend an argument? Check the assignment instructions and discuss the purpose with your tutor or lecturer.

Determining the purpose will help you to choose the most appropriate topic and word your question in the most useful way.

2. Choose a topic

Have you been given a list of topics to choose from or can you choose your own? Check the assignment instructions and if you are still in doubt discuss the requirements with your tutor or lecturer.

The best approach is to choose a topic that you are interested in. If you are interested in your topic you are more likely to invest more time, effort, and creativity into your research and writing. The greater your interest, the more likely it is that you will produce an assignment that is interesting to read.

3. Conduct preliminary research

Before you write your question it is advisable to read a small number of relevant academic sources. Limit your reading to recently published material and perhaps one or two influential works on the topic. The goal here is to familiarise yourself with the key debates in academic writing on the topic.

Reading in order to develop a research question is different from reading in order to answer it. Focus on the main ideas and arguments (these are usually found in the introduction and the conclusion). You don’t need to read every word or take down extensive notes at this stage, as you will probably come back to the text at a later date.

4. Narrow down your topic

Having conducted some preliminary research you should now be in a position to narrow down your topic.

In most cases you will need to narrow down your focus to a specific issue or debate within the broader topic. This is because it is much more effective to cover a single issue or dimension of a topic in depth than to skim the surface of several.

There are several ways that you might go about narrowing down your topic:

  • Think about the subtopics, specific issues, and key debates that exist within the broader topic.
  • Think about the value of focusing on a particular period of time, a particular geographical location, a particular organisation, or a particular group of people.
  • Think about what you want to say in your assignment. What are the key points and arguments that you want to get across? Which subtopic, timeframe or other limitation would allow you to make these points in the most effective way?

Activity: Narrowing down your topic

  • Create three columns on a piece of paper, in a word document, or in a spreadsheet.
  • Select a broad topic for an upcoming assignment or choose a topic that you are interested in.
  • In the first column write down the items contained in the first column below. Add any other items that may be relevant to your topic.
  • In the second column write down potential sub-topics and other limitations. If you get stuck use the examples in the second column below to guide you.
  • In the third column write the potential value of what you have written in the second column. What would that sub-topic or other limitation allow you to argue or demonstrate?
  • Circle or highlight the items in column two that have the strongest potential value.

If you get stuck use the example below to guide you.

Broad topic: Social impact of earthquakes. Relevant events: Haitian earthquake of 2010. Potential value: Very destructive in terms of lives lost and infrastructure damaged. Allows me to explore why some populations are more vulnerable to earthquakes than others. Relevant individuals and groups: Homeless citizens. Potential value: Homelessness was a major consequence. Homelessness increases exposure to other consequences such as outbreaks of disease. Sub-issues: Lack of building codes - One reason why the earthquake was so devastating. Role of NGOs and foreign aid - This has been widely criticised. Allows me to identify which efforts have worked and which have not. Other limitations: Could focus on those still homeless several years after the earthquake. Potential value: Might be a useful way of highlighting the role of social inequality in disaster relief.

5. Write your question

Now that you have narrowed down your topic you can turn your attention to the wording of your research question.

As mentioned previously, the research question must outline a clear task that you will need to complete.

Remember that you will need to keep the purpose of your assignment in mind when thinking about the wording of your question and that the purpose will differ from discipline to discipline (see 1: Determine the Requirements).

In general, however, a good research question requires you to analyse an issue or problem. How and why questions are therefore more useful than what or describe questions. Other useful words that you might use are critique, argue, examine and evaluate. For definitions of these terms see Instruction Words.

Activity: Which is the best worded question?

Imagine that you have been asked to write an essay about earthquakes. The broad topic that you have chosen is the social impact of earthquakes. You have narrowed down your topic and decided to focus on the issue of homelessness caused by the Haitian earthquake of 2010. You are particularly interested in why there were high levels of homelessness several years after the earthquake. Which of these three options is the best research question? Drag and drop to match each question with the most accurate description of its effectiveness as a research question.