Breaking the blank page: Research question guide

How to anchor your research

We start with research questions because they...

  • Are more specific than a general topic.
  • Make finding sources easier by giving you key search terms.
  • Allow you to find an answer that is supported by scholarly research. 
  • Help you figure out what you want to know about your specific topic.
  • Set the scope of your paper.
    • Scope tells you how much of your topic you will talk about.

Research questions

A research question is a detailed question that you have about your chosen topic. You want to learn more about it through researching. What you learn through researching is the answer to it. It helps narrow down your results as you search so that you can stay focused on your topic. Your research question should:

  • Be interesting: especially to you!
  • Be researchable: answerable through evidence and/or data.
  • Be complex: it should not be a yes or no. It should be something people have different opinions and perspectives on.
  • Be specific: it should be specific enough that you can research it with your assignment's time frame and provide enough evidence to support the answer you find within the assignment's page limit.

Creating a research question

What should I ask? Think about interest, impact, and inquiry.

  • Interest: How can I use information I already have? What would I like to know more about?
  • Impact: Why would my question matter to other people? How would my research impact others?
  • Inquiry: How should I pose this question?

We use research questions because they...

  • State the goal of your research.
  • Give your work a clear focus and purpose.
  • Form the base of where your research is going.
  • Help in developing a thesis statement.

A research question is used to state the goal of your research and form the base of a paper. Through the research question, there should be a clear focus and purpose the paper will follow. You can also start developing your thesis at this stage.

Types of research questions

  • Unclear/Clear: Your audience should know exactly what you're trying to say.
    • Unclear: What should America do to address pollution?
      • Both "America" and "pollution" include a lot of factors that your reader has to determine for themselves.
    • Clear: How can National Park Services reduce the impact of pollution in the Shenandoah Valley?
      • Both the "National Park Service" and "the Shenandoah Valley" are specific concepts the reader can identify.
  • Unfocused/Focused: Your question should be answerable within your paper.
    • Unfocused: What caused the housing crisis?
      • The factors that contribute to the housing crisis as a whole are too numerous and broad to be explored in one paper.
    • Focused: How do specific laws contribute to the high eviction rates in Richmond, Virginia?
      • This prompt focuses on exploring the effect of a particular factor (laws) in a particular area (Richmond, Virginia).
  • Simple/Complex: Your question should require thorough research and analysis to be answered.
    • Simple: Do felony convictions impact individuals lives after they leave prison?
      • The answer to this question is well established and can be summarized in several sentences.
    • Complex: How do prison education systems in Virginia contribute to the state's lower rate of recidivism?
      • This question has numerous parts and requires research of several topics to generate a good answer.