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Research Guides

INFO 2010: Information Literacy in the Disciplines

This guide contains some of the readings for INFO 2010: Information Literacy in the Disciplines.

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're 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.

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 during finals.

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

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.

Three Elements Formula

You can think of a research question as an exploration of the relationship or connection between certain basic elements. When looking at it this way, you first need to identify those elements of the topic:

  • The population: who the question applies to or in the comparison
  • The variable: what is the controllable factor to make the question work?
  • The effect: what is the expected outcome or result or effect?

Once you identify these parts of your topic or interests, then you can easily formulate the question. For example, going back to the example of dogs. The population would be college students, the variable is dogs, and the question is the effect on mental health.

College Students + Dogs = Mental Health?

We started off with the topic of Dogs, but really we are looking at how dogs (the variable) affect the mental health (the effect) of college students (the population). Connection words such as effect, affect, result, outcome, compare are usually good ones to use, since they focus on that cause and effect nature that makes a research question more simple and clearly stating what you are interested in.

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.