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Gerald R. Sherratt Library


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

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.

Note for INFO 1010

In the Module 2 Assignment of INFO 1010, you will be asked to choose a specific research topic and write a research question. If you're in ENGL 2010, the topic and research question should relate to the theme of the English class. Depending on when you do the Module 2 Assignment, you may or may not know what you want to write about for your final English paper. Either way, make sure to use these tips to create a research question that can guide you through the research process.

Why Develop a Topic

Coming up with a specific research topic that is not too broad or too narrow might be one of the hardest parts of the whole process. You often have a limited amount of time to sift through a ton of information. There can be so many different topics within your interests and it takes time and effort to figure out what you want to focus on. Narrowing the possible topics down to something specific give you less information to look through.

There are many reasons to develop and narrow your topic, such as:

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 about fairy tales, your topic should be about fairy tales.

Making sure the topic is researchable: There is a lot of knowledge out there, but not all of it has enough information to do an academic assignment about it. If you have the luxury to pick whatever topic you want, you need to make sure that you pick something that can be reasonably researched in the time you have. You can't do something too new, because publishing takes time. Some topics are too basic for college-level work. Informal research or quick research doesn't translate well into a 7 page paper. The same way, if your topic is too big, it will take you forever to research everything about it. The more focused your topic is, the easier it will be to research.

"Researchable" also means that there will be material on your topic. If your interest is too new, or even looking to the future, there will not be enough research on the topic to support your paper. Topics that are asking what will happen in the future will at best only have predictions and speculation to support it, without enough quality sources. Pick something related that isn't looking too far into the future. Other topics that might not be researchable include niche topics that are too obscure to find enough sources. In these cases you should broaden your topic to something more mainstream and use the niche interest as an example.

Making sure it's interesting to you: Whatever you choose to write about, it needs to 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 this subject, but you will have to write about it. If you aren't interested in it, or even hate it, you won't have a great time and might even end up cutting corners and getting a worse grade than you want.

Narrowing Your Topic

The more broad 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 and books on the topic.

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

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

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

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?

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 by 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 those classes together). The more you narrow your topic, the less pages you will be able to write, so you want enough to fill those 10 pages without stretching, but also focused enough to make a good argument and discussion. Take time to play with your topic to explore options on how to broaden or narrow it.

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.

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.

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 cellphone ownership rate in Salt Lake City, UT?
  • Too Simple: How have cellphones changed?
  • Too Broad: How have cellphones 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 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 (population, variable, and effect) and to not fall into any of the bad question traps seen in the table above.