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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Writing a Research Question

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

The Purpose of Research Questions

The Purpose of Research Questions

Research questions are the focal point of what you are researching. They are the motivating force that gives you something tangible to research, rather than just a vague idea of a topic. Research questions define what you want to know about your topic and guide your search for answers. If you are researching for a paper, your thesis statement will then become the answer to your research question, which is the foundation of your argument.

Having a research question will help you stay focused in your research, which will help you be more effective and efficient. When you are done with college, framing any search for knowledge with a research question can help you figure out exactly what information you need. When you have a clear question describing what you are looking for, you can get to your answer much more easily, rather than searching aimlessly and hoping you find what you need.

Note for INFO 1010

In the Plan: Module 2 Assignment of INFO 1010, you will be asked to choose a specific research topic and write a research question. If you are in a co-required ENGL 2010/INFO 1010 class, the topic and research question should relate to the theme of the English class. Make sure to use these tips to create a research question that can guide you through the research process.

Narrowing Research Topic

Picking a Research Topic

Coming up with a topic for a research paper might be one of the hardest parts of the whole process. There are so many different topics you might be interested in and it takes time and effort to make sure that your topic of interest will work for an academic paper that requires research-based writing. Picking and refining your topic to something that will work for your research assignment makes the rest of the process easier.

Some things to consider when choosing a topic:

  • Scope - There has to be enough information on a topic in order to write an engaging paper about it. Conversely, if there is too much information on your topic, your paper might end up being superficial because it is difficult to cover your topic in a single paper. A broad topic refers to the focus being on more general things (e.g college students) while a narrow topic refers to focusing on a few specific things that are a subset of the broader topic (e.g. eating habits of college students). Kind of like zooming in a picture to a smaller section that you can see more clearly. The more you zoom in or narrow your focus, the less you will be able to write about (e.g. eating habits of left-handed college students), so you want to find that scope that will allow you to write 10 pages on the topic.
  • Researchability -  If scholars aren’t researching and writing about a topic, you will have a difficult time finding information on it.This could happen for many reasons, but especially if your topic is too new. Publishing in academic sources takes time, and if your topic is very recent there may not be enough research done to allow you to write a paper. Similarly, if your topic is very specific there might be very little research on that niche topic. Without sources you cannot write a research-based paper.
  • Appropriate Level - Some topics are too basic for college-level work. Research questions at the university level are typically complex and multi-faceted without an obvious answer. Answers to these questions are not black and white but have a lot of nuance and often start with “it depends.” Academic research is more than writing a report on a specific topic. It is a deep dive into the scholarly conversation on that topic, which requires thorough investigation into what is known about a topic. It involves the use of sources written by academics or other experts, generally called scholarly or academic sources.  
  • Making sure it fits the theme of the class or parameters of the assignment - You want to make sure that the topic you choose actually works for the assignment and has to do with the topic of the class. If you are taking an American History class, your topic should be about the right time period of American History. If you are taking the English 2010 section on writing about fairy tales, your topic should be about fairy tales.
  • Making sure it's interesting to you - Whatever you choose to write about, it better be something that you won't mind spending a lot of time with. You will not only have to read a bunch of books and articles about your subject, but you will also have to write about it. If you aren't interested in the topic, or even hate it, engaging with the research might be a struggle.

Refining the Scope of Your Topic

The more broad the scope of your topic is, the more results you’ll get (i.e. pages and pages of articles). The results will likely be general and unfocused. There will be enough resources to write books on the topic.

a search in Academic Search Ultimate for the keyword "dogs" yielding 104,255 results.

Screenshot of a search for Dogs AND "mental health, with over 1,000 results.


The narrower the scope of your topic is, the more specific your results will be, so there will be less information or fewer search results, depending on how narrow your topic gets. If your topic is too narrow, you might not get any results at all.

It's okay to start with a broad topic you are interested in and then narrow it down to a manageable/researchable size, until it is just right for your assignment's parameters. For example:

Start with a broad topic you are interested in, such as: dogs. Then you can think of things about dogs that are interesting to you and narrow it down, etc. Once you have a topic, you can frame it into a question that will help direct your research.

Broad topic: Dogs

Narrow Topic: Dogs and mental health benefits.

Question example: How can dogs improve the mental health of a person?

Narrower Topic: Dogs and their effect on the mental health of College Students.

Question example: How can dogs improve the mental health of college students?

a search in Academic Search Ultimate for the keywords "dogs and mental health and college students" yielding only 10 results.


As you are narrowing your topic, consider these points as ways to potentially focus it:

  • Time: limiting your topic to a time period (This decade? Last decade? This year?)
  • Place: a geographic emphasis (In the United States? In the Western United States? In Utah?)
  • Population: this could be age, occupation, race or ethnicity, gender, etc.
  • Viewpoint: this could be discipline specific, looking at it from a medical, social, cultural, or political standpoint.

In the above example, the interest was in dogs and mental health, which is a medical viewpoint of dogs, but then we further limited the question to the population of college students, to narrow the focus to something relatable to our demographic population.


Note for INFO 1010:

Your topic needs to be focused and narrow enough to work for a 7-10 page paper, and should relate to the topic of your ENGL 2010 class (if you are taking INFO 1010 and ENGL 2010 together). The more you narrow down your topic, the fewer pages you will be able to write, so you want enough to fill those 10 pages without stretching. At the same time your topic has to be focused enough to make a good argument and fully discuss your topic. Take time to play with your topic to explore options on how to broaden or narrow it. The SUU librarians can help you with this process. Come to the Questions Desk or use online help.

Writing a Research Question

What is a Research Question?

A research question is the starting point. It poses the point of your research by asking exactly what you are trying to figure out.

When you write a paper, most will require a Thesis Statement. Your thesis statement is the answer you will explain or prove in your research paper. A good research question is the starting point for a good thesis statement, which leads to a good paper.

Question: How can dogs improve the mental health of college students?

Thesis Statement: Interaction with dogs can reduce stress and anxiety in college students.

How to Write a Research Question

Your research question is what you are curious about researching, put into a formal question. This question will help you articulate what you are trying to research and focus your topic. It will also help you when brainstorming your keywords and search statements.

Your question needs to be broad enough to cover your whole topic and fill your required number of pages. But it also needs to be narrow enough to actually be answered in that same number of pages.

Here are the basics of what makes a good research question:

  • Cannot be answered with a YES or NO response
  • Should not be two questions squished into one
  • Cannot be answered by a number, word, or phrase (e.g. definition, statistic, etc.)
  • Cannot be answered using a single source (e.g. dictionary or Wikipedia article)
  • States precisely what is to be answered
  • Should not be too broad or too narrow
  • Should not be biased, subjective, or leading
  • Should represent a topic that is interesting to you
  • Should generate a discussion

You want your question to say exactly what you want to research in the simplest way possible. Extra words or fillers can really bog down your question. So try to be simple and straightforward. That is why working from the more basic or broadest part of your topic and narrowing down can be a good method. If you go too narrow, then take it a step back.

Identifying the Main Concepts of Your Question

To make your research question clear and concise, identify your main concepts. Can you distill your topic or question down to just a few keywords or concepts? What is the relationship between these concepts? Is there a correlation? Or a cause and effect relationship? Identifying your main concepts will be helpful as you write a good research question, since it will help you add just what you need and leave out the extra words and phrases that will just confuse your question.

For example, if you wanted to write about dogs and how they can help with mental health issues, the most important concepts of this topic would be dogs and mental health. You can then use those main concepts to write a question that will show the relationship between those two concepts in a clear way. Such as:

How can dogs affect the mental health of a person?

As we saw in the example in the Narrowing Your Topic section earlier, that question is too broad, you could add another concept in, such as those suggested earlier (time, place, population, viewpoint). A common way to narrow your question would be to pick a specific population for the people potentially affected by dogs. Such as the college students in the previous example: 

How can dogs affect the mental health of college students?

Most questions need at least two main concepts, and some larger topics will need a further way to narrow or refine the topic, such as a population.

Good Questions and Bad Questions

Getting the phrasing right on a question really affects the direction of the question, so make sure you use clear and precise wording that states exactly what you want to find out. Any topic can be turned into a good or bad question, depending on how it's phrased. Here are some examples of a good question and some bad versions of the same topic and question. Comparing them might help you get the hang of how to phrase your topic into a question that will really describe what you want to know.

A table showing a list of good questions and some potential bad versions of those same questions. 

 Good Question Bad Versions of Same Question
 How can dogs impact the mental health of college students? 
  • Yes or No: Does owning a dog impact mental health?
  • Two questions: Are dogs good for mental health and can they help with depression?
  • Too Narrow: How can owning dogs impact the mental health of college aged students in North Platte, Nebraska?
  • Too Simple: What are the benefits of dog ownership?
  • Too Broad: How do dogs interact with humans?
  • Biased or Subjective: Why is owning a dog better than owning a cat?
How have cell phones affected social interaction among American high school students?
  • Yes or No: Have cell phones changed social interaction?
  • Two questions: Have cell phones changed social interaction and how can we stop it?
  • Too Narrow: What is the cell phone ownership rate in Salt Lake City, UT?
  • Too Simple: How have cell phones changed?
  • Too Broad: How have cell phones changed society?
  • Biased or Subjective: How have cell phones negatively affected social interaction?
What are the effects of performance enhancing drugs on the health of athletes?
  • Yes or No: Are performance enhancing drugs dangerous to the health of athletes?
  • Two questions: Are performance enhancing drugs dangerous and do they affect the health of athletes?
  • Too Narrow: What is the rate of use of performance enhancing drugs in college football in the state of Utah?
  • Too Simple: What are the side effects of performance enhancing drugs?
  • Too Broad: Why are performance enhancing drugs used?
  • Biased or Subjective: Why are performance enhancing drugs dangerous to your health?

Note for INFO 1010:

Your Plan: Module 2 Assignment will ask you to write your paper topic as a research question. You will want your question to have all the required pieces of a good research question and to not fall into any of the bad question traps seen in the table above.