How is a research question like a red wheelbarrow? No, not because it’s something your older brother promised to give you a ride in only to dump you on a cow patty; rather, it’s that so much depends upon it. Everything, in fact.
A research question is exactly what it sounds like: a question, just one sentence, that captures the essence of what you’re trying to figure out in your research. Think of it as a smart tweet with a question mark at the end.
Why is your research question so important? Because it’s the engine of your project: it drives everything you do, from the sources you search out to the methodology you employ. Ultimately, your thesis statement (findings) will directly answer your research question; the rest of your document will work to justify this answer.
In short, your research question is the boss of your paper or thesis. Everything you write has to report to that research question, so to speak. Everything has to further its aims. Everything has to be explicitly relevant to it. Everything has to do what it needs done.
Here are some useful things to ask yourself as you refine your research question:
- Is the scope of this question appropriate to the assignment? Can I produce a sufficiently robust analysis within my time and page limits (or requirements)? If not, how might I narrow or broaden the variables?
- Why is it important to answer this question? Why does it matter that we don’t know the answer? What useful knowledge might we gain?
- What kind of evidence would I need to convincingly answer this question? Is that evidence available to me?
As subject-matter experts, your professors and advisor(s) are always the go-to resource for guidance on research questions. They’re probably not going to formulate one for you, though; to help you get started, our "Constructing Research Questions" workshop will walk you through the process of selecting a rich, trenchant research question. View the video and slides or register for the next live session: workshops are offered in the first four weeks of each quarter; you can sign up during workshop season through WCOnline. See the whole workshop list here.
Then dig into our other links for more dirt on research questions!
Research Questions Links