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1) Plan Your Research: Developing a Research Question

A University of Lethbridge Library guide to planning your research paper.

How Do I Come up with a Good Research Question?

The process of developing a research question can be broken down into four steps:

Step 1: Choose a topic by identifying a broad area of interest

Step 2: Find background information to help you understand your topic

Step 3: Define your research question

Step 4: Modify and refine your search question to achieve a manageable focus

Step 1 – Choose a General Research Topic

This is the starting point for your research. You don't need to have a specific research question in mind at this point – just a general topic that you want to explore.

Things to consider when choosing an area to investigate:

  • Choose something that is of genuine interest to you
  • Choose something that is relevant to the assignment 
  • Choose something that is significant enough to warrant research

As an example, you might decide that you want to take a closer look at the general area of censorship.

Step 2 – Find Background Information

Once you have a general topic in mind, it is important to refine your focus until you have a manageable topic. An idea like "I want to write a paper about the problem of censorship" lacks focus and will leave you frustrated.

Refining your topic can be difficult if you are not deeply familiar with your general area of interest. In order to help you focus your topic, it is important that you gather background information early on in your research.

The purpose of gathering background information is:

  • To give you an overview of the topic as a whole
  • To alert you to the key issues and controversies
  • To provide you with a sense of how the topic area relates to other topic
  • To introduce you to the specialized vocabulary relating to the topic

Specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias are a valuable tool at this stage of your research.

Specialized encyclopedias

  • Have articles that are on specific topics within a particular area (A general encyclopedia would have an article on Buddhism, a religion encyclopedia would have an article on a specific Buddhist ritual)
  • The articles are written by experts in the field
  • The articles provide bibliographies that list other sources on the same topic
  • The articles typically contain cross-references to other related topics
  • Provide an introduction to specialized vocabulary

Specialized dictionaries

  • Provide definitions for specialized vocabulary
  • Often provide lengthy explanations associated with the vocabulary, more like a normal encyclopedia article

Step 3 – Translate Your Interest into a Research Question

After gathering background information, one of the easiest ways to focus your topic is to frame it as a question. Research is not passive reporting, it is a search for answers.

For instance, after doing research on censorship, you discover a current controversy involving censorship of the Internet. So, looking at your background research, you have determined that this is the area on which you wish to focus.

There are a number of ways to focus this interest even further into a research question.

Some questions to get you started

Who is involved?

  • What are the political affiliations of those who are in favor of and opposed to censoring the Internet?
  • How do public schools address Internet access and censorship?
  • Does the government have the right to censor the Internet?

Are there comparisons you can make?

  • How does the debate concerning Internet censorship differ from the debate about book banning?
  • Does the Canada have different rules about Internet censorship than other countries?

Are there Pros & Cons to your topic? This reflects a potential decision to be made

  • What are the ethical arguments for or against censoring the Internet?
  • Should libraries censor Internet use?
  • Should Internet filters block pornography?

Your background research using specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries will give you the knowledge you need to formulate a good research question.

Common problems with research questions

There are a number of common errors people make when formulating research questions.

The question is too broad to be manageable.

  • What is the history of Christianity?
    • Try instead, How did the conversion of Emperor Constantine affect the history of Christianity?
  • How are environmental disasters being fought?
    • Try instead, How effective are the current practices for cleaning oil spills?

The question is too narrow.

Sometimes the narrowness is logical (such as there being an easily obtainable "right" answer), and sometimes it is too narrow given the availability of resources.

  • Does Sweden have nationalized healthcare? (The answer is "yes." That doesn't make for much of a paper).
    • Try instead, What was the political process that enabled Sweden to establish nationalized healthcare?
  • How did the UAW affect the economy in Dayton, Ohio in 1973?
    • Try instead, What influence did the automobile labor unions have on the economy in the early 1970's?

The question cannot be answered.

Sometimes this is because of a logical problem in the question, because the information needed to answer the question cannot be logically or legally obtained.

  • What are the pros and cons of evolution? (This isn't a very logical question).
    • Try instead, How does teaching of evolution in public schools affect children who are raised in religions that embrace creationism?
  • How many girls are forced into prostitution each year?
    • Try instead, What are the traits that make girls vulnerable for being forced into prostitution?

Step 4 – Further Modifying Your Topic

You will continue to modify your topic throughout the research process. How you modify your topic will depend upon:

  • Whether there is too much information
  • Whether there is too little information
  • Whether new issues arise during the research process that need to be addressed

If you need any help with this part, always feel free to:

Library Help

Research Help Desk

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