14 Developing Your Research Question

Teaching & Learning, University Libraries

Because of all their influence, you might worry that research questions are very difficult to develop. Sometimes it can seem that way. But we’ll help you get the hang of it and, luckily, none of us has to come up with perfect ones right off. It’s more like doing a rough draft and then improving it. That’s why we talk about developing research questions instead of just writing them.

Steps for Developing a Research Question

The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.

Step 1: Pick a topic

Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.

Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.

Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.

Step 5: Change the question you’re interested in so that it is more focused and specific.


Once you know the steps and their order, only three skills are involved in developing a research question:

  • Imagining narrower topics about a larger one,
  • Thinking of questions that stem from a narrow topic, and
  • Focusing questions to eliminate their vagueness.

Every time you use these skills, it’s important to evaluate what you have produced—that’s just part of the process of turning rough drafts into more finished products.

Start with a narrow topic, think of questions, and then focus those questions.
Three steps for developing a research question

Focused and researchable

Criteria Explanation
Focused on a single topic Your central research question should work together with your research problem to keep your work focused. If you have multiple questions, they should all clearly tie back to your central aim.
Answerable using credible sources Your question must be answerable using quantitative and/or qualitative data, or by reading scholarly sources on the topic to develop your argument. If such data is impossible to access, you likely need to rethink your question.
Not based on value judgements Avoid subjective words like goodbadbetter and worse. These do not give clear criteria for answering the question.

  • Is X or Y a better policy?
  • How effective are X and Y policies at reducing rates of Z?

Feasible and specific

Criteria Explanation
Answerable within practical constraints Make sure you have enough time and resources to do all research required to answer your question. If it seems you will not be able to gain access to the data you need, consider narrowing down your question to be more specific.
Uses specific, well-defined concepts All the terms you use in the research question should have clear meanings. Avoid vague language, jargon, and too-broad ideas.

  • What effect does social media have on people’s minds?
  • What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of 16-year-olds at your local high school?
Does not demand a conclusive solution, policy, or course of action Research is about informing, not instructing. Even if your project is focused on a practical problem, it should aim to improve understanding rather than demand a ready-made solution.

If ready-made solutions are necessary, consider conducting action research instead. Action research is a research method that aims to simultaneously investigate an issue as it is solved. In other words, as its name suggests, action research conducts research and takes action at the same time.

  • What should the government do about low voter turnout?
  • What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing voter turnout among those aged 18-30?

Complex and arguable

Criteria Explanation
Cannot be answered with yes or no Closed-ended, yes/no questions are too simple to work as good research questions—they don’t provide enough scope for robust investigation and discussion.

  • Has there been an increase in those experiencing homelessness in the US in the past ten years?
  • How have economic and political factors affected patterns of experiencing homelessness in the US over the past ten years?
Cannot be answered with easily-found facts If you can answer the question through a single Google search, book, or article, it is probably not complex enough. A good research question requires original data, synthesis of multiple sources, and original interpretation and argumentation prior to providing an answer.

Relevant and original

Criteria Explanation
Addresses a relevant problem Your research question should be developed based on initial reading around your topic. It should focus on addressing a problem or gap in the existing knowledge in your field or discipline.
Contributes to a timely social or academic debate The question should aim to contribute to an existing and current debate in your field or in society at large. It should produce knowledge that future researchers or practitioners can later build on.
Has not already been answered You don’t have to ask something that nobody has ever thought of before, but your question should have some aspect of originality. For example, you can focus on a specific location, or explore a new angle.

Maybe you have a topic in mind but aren’t sure how to form a research question around it. The trick is to think of a question related to your topic but not answerable with a quick search. Also, try to be specific so that your research question can be fully answered in the final product for your research assignment.

ACTIVITY: Thinking of Questions

For each of the narrow topics below, think of a research question that is logically related to that topic. (Remember that good research questions often, but not always, start with “Why” or “How” because questions that begin that way usually require more analysis.)


  • U.S. investors’ attitudes about sustainability
  • College students’ use of Snapchat
  • The character Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Nature-inspired nanotechnologies
  • Marital therapy

After you think of each research question, evaluate it by asking whether it is:

  • Logically related to the topic
  • In question form
  • Not answerable with a quick Google search
  • Specific, not vague

Sometimes the first draft of a research question is still too broad, which can make your search for sources more challenging. Refining your question to remove vagueness or to target a specific aspect of the topic can help.

ACTIVITY: Focusing Questions

The first draft research questions below are not focused enough. Read them and identify at least one area of vagueness in each. Check your vagueness with what we identified. It’s great if you found more than we did because that can lead to research questions of greater specificity. See the bottom of the page for our answers.

First Drafts of Research Questions:

  1. Why have most electric car company start-ups failed?
  2. How do crabapple trees develop buds?
  3. How has NASA helped America?
  4. Why do many first-time elections soon after a country overthrows a dictator result in very conservative elected leaders?
  5. How is music composed and performed mostly by African-Americans connected to African-American history?


ANSWER TO ACTIVITY: Focusing Questions

Some answers to the “Focusing Questions” Activity above are:

Question 1: Why have most electric car company start-ups failed?
Vagueness: Which companies are we talking about? Worldwide or in a particular country?

Question 2: How do crabapple trees develop buds?
Vagueness: There are several kinds of crabapples. Should we talk only about one kind? Does it matter where the crabapple tree lives?

Question 3: How has NASA helped America?
Vagueness: NASA has had many projects. Should we should focus on one project they completed? Or projects during a particular time period?

Question 4: Why do many first-time elections soon after a country overthrows a dictator result in very conservative elected leaders?
Vagueness: What time period are we talking about? Many dictators have been overthrown and many countries have been involved. Perhaps we should focus on one country or one dictator or one time period.

Question 5: How is music composed and performed mostly by African-Americans connected to African-American history?
Vagueness: What kinds of music? Any particular performers and composers? When?


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