How to Write a Research Question

What is a research question?
A research question is a clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable question around which you center your research. You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious about.
Why is a research question essential to the research process?
Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.
Steps to developing a research question:

  • Choose an interesting general topic. Even directed academic research should focus on a topic in which the writer is at least somewhat personally invested. Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more. An example of a general topic might be “Slavery in the American South” or “Films of the 1930s.”
  • Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick searches in current periodicals and journals on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus. What questions does this early research raise?
  • Consider your audience. For most college papers, your audience will be academic, but always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. Would that particular audience be interested in this question?
  • Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “How did the slave trade evolve in the 1850s in the American South?” or “Why were slave narratives effective tools in working toward the abolishment of slavery?”
    • Evaluate your question.

      Is your research question clear? With so much research available on
      any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in
      order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research.

Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available. (See flip side for examples of focused vs. unfocused research questions.)
Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts.  They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer.

  • Hypothesize. After you’ve come up with a question, think about what the path you think the answer will take. Where do you think your research will take you? What kind of argument are you hoping to make/support? What will it mean if your research disputes your planned argument?

Sample Research Questions

Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?

The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites are causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of harm (privacy issues), and who the issue is harming (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

 What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?
The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific group that is affected (penguins). When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex:  What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?
The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective. 

Last updated 10/9/2009
Posted in Brainstorming and Drafting, Writing Preparation and Process, Writing Resources
36 comments on “How to Write a Research Question
  1. Farhat Mahfooz says:

    It is a good source for me. tomorrow is my exam of research methodology. I found this articles beneficial for my exam….. thnks admin.

  2. Anne jerica says:

    Thanks for posting this,so helpful.

  3. sofunwa oluwasegun samuel says:

    nice work guys

  4. Chatchanok S.Sveen says:

    I really like your pages, but I do like to understand more…I am doing my research about refugee here in norway ” experience refugee in Elverum Norway”

  5. Melanie Luke says:

    I thinking of rewording my question to be like this:
    What are common strands secondary school students suffering from broken homes and how can these sufferings be soothed by a class teacher?

  6. Thanks for the information-it help to focus what I want to set my research design out
    Kind Regards

  7. Patrick Preston says:

    I would greatly appreciate your assistanc, I’m in the process of developing a research question and would like your input.

    Research Question:What are the common business relationship traits between Facebook and MySpace in the service sector, and how can these commonalities be used in the creation of value?

    I found this site to be amazing and very helpful!!


  8. How Can I formulate a questionare on this research, to determine the stock feed pricing models used by the feed producers. This study will;
    Determine the major types of Dairy, Pigs aand Poultry feeds available on the zambian markets by documenting the annual production and sales volumes.
    Establish the main ingredients used in the formulation of livestock feed.
    Ascertain the major sources of livestock feed ingredients.
    Find out the prices of livestock feed by generating reasonable price trends.

  9. Rainer Poisel says:

    Thank you for summing things up and for giving sample research questions. Your post helped me to formulate research questions for a future research project.

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  11. Hilary O'Shaughnessy says:

    hi there, this is a really straightforward no nonsense guide. the examples of how to refine a question specifically are really useful. thanks.

  12. Ebuh maxwell john says:

    Am writing my graduation project (B.Sc) “The Impact Of Training & Development On Employees’ Performance” i’ve through with every other part of d project,except d reasearch question & hypothesis,which my supervisor rejectd. Pls help me for it, Thanks.

  13. olatunbosun says:

    I want to know more and how to write and ask questions on the influence ƒ youth empowerment on manpower development .

  14. Danielle says:

    Hi, this guide is very straightforward and extremely helpful but I am still having difficulty coming up with a direct and sound question. For example if I wished to research Christian bias in relation to homosexuality would that title be considered to broad?

  15. Abis says:

    This article was very insightful and eloquently presented. It proved very useful.
    Thank You for the effort.

  16. gracy says:

    The research topic guidline is very helpful…thanx..

  17. KASU Nandasena says:

    What is a my research question?
    my topic is effectiveness of rural development in buttala area.

  18. Guyto Pierre says:

    I have a subject for paper on question of free will: Determinism vs Libertarianism. could you give a fallow up on this papep

  19. Guyto Pierre says:

    I have a subject for paper on question of free will: Determinism vs Libertarianism. could you give a fallow up on this paper.

  20. sachin says:

    Clearly explained, very helpful in understanding the term. With no tutors available at the moment this post worked as DIY kit. Feeling thankful to the writer.

  21. Natalie says:

    Love this article! It really helped me in coming up with my research question for my research paper. Looking forward to more articles!

  22. mahsa says:

    I WANT research question about language teaching

  23. Felipe says:

    Very relevant post. Straight to the point and with good clear examples. Thanks!

  24. Nick says:

    Wanted to say thank you for the great explanation! I’m in the process of creating a study for my qualitative research methods class and this gave me a very clear understanding of developing research questions.


  25. Gosbert Paschal says:

    Wonderful,,,,, keep it up!!!

  26. RAJESH KUMAR S 1324022 says:

    can you give me hints how to work in Folk Media research papers and how to frame the questions on the topic and go on..,
    please if possible
    reply soon

  27. LavLove says:

    Thank You. This information is very helpful.

  28. Gebremedhin Tesfay says:

    Thank You very much for your concise and yet comprehensive explanation on ‘How to write research questions’. These will help me in rewriting my research questions on ‘effectiveness of business income tax collection’.

  29. shaju deyah says:

    Its more helpful for my upcoming exams

  30. Alexander Buwe says:

    So helpful,thanx so much

  31. yano says:

    very good material, I now know how to come up with a real topic

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  33. fredah says:

    how do i write a proper research question based on the influence of food we eat today compared to those of previous years ago

  34. Jayson Revilla says:

    thnx for the post. we have a video presentation on our eresearch the the topic is all about research..

  35. Collins Omondi Okoth says:

    thank you so much for the in information, i will be checking in to benefit more.

  36. naomi pitse says:

    Thanks so much for this explananation,i managed to formulate my research question