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Cornerstone Resources (Core 110)

From Topics to Questions

A research question is the focal point of your research and your paper.  It says what you are trying to find out and what you will be communicating through your research.

Characteristics of good research questions:

  • Clear:  People should know what you are talking about without having to read it over for clarity
  • Specific:  Narrow your question on a focused aspect of your topic.  Resist the urge to cover a broad subject. 
  • Complex:  The question should not be answerable with a simple "yes" or "no".  It should require some synthesis and conclusions on your part, otherwise, you have nothing to talk about in the paper.
  • Arguable:  The question should have more than one potential answer.  If all you do is summarize accepted facts, then you have a report, not a research paper.  A good question will allow you to explore and then defend your findings.

Unfocused:  How does social media affect people?
Focused:  How does Facebook affect tendency to overshare among college students?

The unfocused question is too broad .  What kinds of social media?  Affect how?  What people -- anyone?  It is so broad that it could be the subject of an entire book, not an individual paper.  The clear version gives more specificity and is less ambiguous.  The reader doesn't have to wonder what direction you will take.

Unclear:  How does music make a person happy?
Clear:  What role do elements of music composition have on the mood of people with depressive tendencies?

The unclear statement is very general.  Making someone happy could have many different interpretations.  The better version clarifies that it will look at the mood of a specific population, and it concentrates on compositional elements of music.

Too simple:  What are the benefits of lifting weights?
Complex/Arguable:   What are the effects of body type on ability to gain strength over a regular program of lifting weights?

The first question is merely a general topic rephrased as a question.  It could be answered by summarizing a few known facts.  In general, if a question can be answered by a quick Google or Wikipedia search, it is probably not substantial enough for a college paper.  The second question introduces an new element -- body type -- that makes it more thought provoking.  It is not something everybody knows and will likely require the researcher to evaluate, synthesize, and make some conclusions as a result of investigating.

Vague:  How do televison shows affect people's perceptions of right and wrong?
More specific:  How does Walter on the show Breaking Bad communicate the writers' perception of the nature of evil?

The first question is too broad.  It is too broad to talk about television shows in general and how they cover the whole gamut of ethics.  The revised question focuses on a particular show -- Breaking Bad -- and a specific character.  It looks at a particular part of this character -- nature of evil.





This is where you move from a broad topic to a specific part of the topic you want to know.  It is to your advantage to narrow your topic so you don't have so many sources plow through to research your question.  A properly narrowed question allows you to focus on the more relevant sources.

Technique 1:  Ask "What about it?"

Each time you ask "What about it?" you will narrow to a more focused aspect of the topic.

Graphic for using What About It to narrow a topic







Technique 2:  Follow an established pattern

Pattern examples










Pick something that interests you.  If you are interested, it will show in the quality of your work.

A good way to get started is to read a something general on a broad topic you like and let it suggest what narrower aspects of the topic you might use to turn into a research question.

Tools to get ideas:

The academic wikipedia. Gives background on broad topics that you can turn into specific questions.
You can use something from Credo as ONE of your sources.

CQ Researcher
Browse by topic or date. Covers popular and key issues in the news with a focus on long-lasting policy topics.

Oxford Handbooks Online
Essays on broad topics to help you go from general idea to something more specific.