Developing a Research Question

It's absolutely essential to develop a research question that you're interested in or care about in order to focus your research and your paper (unless, of course, your instructor gives you a very specific assignment). For example, researching a broad topic such as "business management" is difficult since there may be hundreds of sources on all aspects of business management. On the other hand, a focused question such as "What are the pros and cons of Japanese management style?" is easier to research and can be covered more fully and in more depth.

How do you develop a usable research question? Choose an appropriate topic or issue for your research, one that actually can be researched (Exercise 1). Then list all of the questions that you'd like answered yourself. Choose the best question, one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Sometimes the number of sources you find will help you discover whether your research question is too broad, too narrow, or okay?

If you know a lot about the topic, you can develop a research question based on your own knowledge. If you feel you don't know much about the topic, think again. For example, if you're assigned a research topic on an issue confronting the ancient Babylonian family, remember, by virtue of your own family life, you already know a great deal about family issues. Once you determine what you do know, then you're ready to do some general reading in a textbook or encyclopedia in order to develop a usable research question.

It's a good idea to evaluate your research question before completing the research exercise (Exercise 3) and to ask the writing tutor for feedback on your research question. And you also should check your research question with your course tutor.

Topic/Issue

A topic is what the essay or research paper is about. It provides a focus for the writing. Of course, the major topic can be broken down into its components or smaller pieces (e.g., the major topic of nuclear waste disposal may be broken down into medical, economic, and environmental concerns). But the important thing to remember is that you should stick with just one major topic per essay or research paper in order to have a coherent piece of writing.

An issue is a concept upon which you can take a stand. While "nuclear waste" is a topic, "safe and economic disposal of nuclear waste" is an issue, or a "point of discussion, debate, or dispute" (American Heritage Dictionary).

Choose a Question that is Neither Too Broad or Too Narrow

For example, if you choose juvenile delinquency (a topic that can be researched), you might ask the following questions:

  • What is the 1994 rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
  • What can we do to reduce juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
  • Does education play a role in reducing juvenile delinquents' return to crime?

Once you complete your list, review your questions in order to choose a usable one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. In this case, the best research question is "c." Question "a" is too narrow, since it can be answered with a simple statistic. Question "b" is too broad; it implies that the researcher will cover many tactics for reducing juvenile delinquency that could be used throughout the country. Question "c," on the other hand, is focused enough to research in some depth. (Exercise 2)

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