Formulating a Good Research Question

The purpose of this step in the Research Process is to help you further refine your research topic. In order to do good research, you must have a clear understanding of what issues are important and which questions relate to the topic you wish to explore.

The previous exercise of Narrowing the Focus of your Topic, guided you through several techniques to use to clarify or specify a certain approach to the general topic idea you developed with the Concept Mapping exercise. The next critical step in the research process is to formulate a research question about your topic. The decisions you made regarding how to focus your topic on a certain viewpoint, demographic, or geographic area will naturally assist you in developing a research question. Note: you do not need to know everything there is on your topic. Your Research Question should focus on those areas of your topic which you are interested in clarifying or investigating to obtain a better understanding on that particular aspect of your Topic. The Research Question maps out the direction in which you choose to take your topic.

Steps in Developing an Effective Research Question

1. Do some background reading to understand the issues related to your topic.

2. What exactly do you need or want to know about your topic?

3. A strong Research Question should pass the "So What?" test.

4. Your Research Question should only deal with ONE topic, but should incorporate at least TWO major issues or concepts.

For example: What are the hereditary factors associated with schizophrenia?

Your major topic is Schizophrenia, but your question is dealing with the issue of : schizophrenia and heredity.

5. Your Question should be open-ended, using WHAT, WHY or HOW.

6. Is your Question too broad, too narrow or OK? Take the GoldiLocks test to see if you can tell when a Research Question is TOO Broad, TOO Narrow or Just Right. Click Here.

NOTE: This Research Question Evaluation website was developed by Empire State College in New York and is being used with their permission.

7. Can the topic be researched and what sources will have the kind of information you need to answer your research question (academic journals, magazines, books, government documents, professional association websites?)

8. Be sure to incorporate the viewpoint, demographic and geographic elements, you selected, into the structure and wording of your Research Question. Don't forget, you can employ one or more of the following narrowing techniques as part of your Research Question.

Note the examples of Research Questions listed and how they include one or more of the narrowing strategies.

Narrowing Strategy
Time Focus on a specific time period. After or since 2000, during the Iraq War, Future? How is the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan similar to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War?
Place Geographically, a specific country, region, city What effect would legalizing marijuana in the State of California have on drug laws in other states?

Gender, age group, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, species, etc.

How does the media portrayal of women affect the self-esteem of teenage girls?

Social, legal, medical, economical, environmental, ethical, biological, moral, physical, psychological, philosophical, political?
A viewpoint allows you to focus on a single aspect of your topic.

What psychological and/or social conditions in the military environment would cause an increase in sexual assaults and rapes of female soldiers?

Formulating Your Research Question Exercise


Consider some of the related aspects to your topic that you listed on your concept map and select one of the related aspects that interests or intrigues you the most.

For example, looking at the causes, effects and/or solutions to a topic can help you formulate a couple of research questions you would like to investigate in relation to your topic.

Use the question words of WHAT, WHY or HOW, to formulate a couple of research questions that will help you focus on key aspects related to your topic. Below is an example of taking a General Topic, narrowing it and then focusing your research by formulating several possible Research Questions.

General Topic Example:

Urban Transportation

Specific or Narrower Topic Example:

Mass Transit

Formulating Your Topic Into Questions?

A good way to start your research is to state your topic as a question using WHAT, WHY or HOW. This will help you clarify your thoughts and focus on specific aspects of your topic.

What benefits can an urban mass transit system provide in revitalizing economic development and growth in today’s U.S. metropolitan areas?

NOTE: that this question ties 2 major concepts together: economic development with the main topic of mass transit.

What role can the federal government play in helping U.S. metropolitan areas implement or develop more efficient and environmentally friendly mass transit systems?

NOTE: this question ties together the concept of federal government assistance with the main topic of mass transit.

Taking the information you used to Narrow Your Topic, develop three different Research Questions, using What, Why and How? Click on the link below to bring up a word document of this exercise.


Using the topic example of: Treatment of women in the military, here are examples of several research questions that could be formulated based on this issue.


Formulating Your Own Research Question Exercise.

Now that you have developed a few Research Questions, using this evaluation rubric, determine if your Question(s) is too broad, too narrow or OKAY.

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