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Develop a Research Question: Home

Need to come up with a good research question for an assignment? This tutorial helps with brainstorming, testing, and honing a viable research question.

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Brainstorming a Research Question

When brainstorming a topic, here are a few things to consider:

  • Pay attention to assignment details. Look at your assignment; what is it asking you to do? Be sure to stay on task!
  • Research what interests you. You're the one who has to write the paper, try to pick a topic that you're interested in.
  • Start brainstorming keywords. Find words and phrases that are connected to this content.


Testing a Research Question

Once you have one or a few potential research questions, it's worth testing them out to see if they are viable. Viable in this context means that you're actually going to be find quality sources that help you answer the research question. What you do not want is to choose a research question for which there are insufficient sources available.

There are a lot of great library resources to help test your research question:

  • Develop a list of keywords. Brainstorm keywords and phrases that describe your research question. Some of these will be pulled directly from the research question, but also think about synonyms and narrower or broader terms related to keywords you already have.
  • Use the right databases. Our research and course guides can help you determine which databases work best based on your research question.
  • Skim the content. Is there a general theme or connection among the material? Are you seeing potential subtopics that sound interesting? Is there enough there for you to work with?
  • Revise the research question. Based on the content you found, think of how you can modify your research question. Can it be narrowed or broadened (more on that below)? Did you find subtopics you want to make explicit in the research question? If you didn't find enough, should you consider developing a different research question?

Narrowing & Broadening a Research Question

Sometimes, as you move through the research process, you'll find that your research question is either too narrow or too broad. When a question is too narrow, it often means that you have trouble finding enough resources to answer the question. When a question is too broad, you find a lot but the majority of resources aren't related to the research question.

In order to narrow a research question that is too broad, try one or more of the following:

  • Add another keyword to your search. The more keywords that you add to a search, the more specific your search parameters, the less results you will receive.
  • Add quotation marks around a phrase. For example, search for "climate change" with the quotation marks included. The quotation marks tell the database to only show you resources where those words show up next to each other in that order. This can help make sure the results really relate to your research question and don't go too far off topic.
  • Use filters. Most databases have them, though they can appear in different places (the left-hand side, right-hand side, along the top, etc.). Filters can narrow results by source type (journal article, book, newspaper article, etc.), publication date, subject, research methodology, and more.

In order to broaden a research question that is too narrow, try one or more of the following:

  • Remove keywords from your search. The more keywords you include, the less results you get. So, look at the keywords you're using and remove the one that you think is least important. You might find this is exactly what you need to improve search results.
  • Try synonyms. Very often, there are multiple words you can use to get at the same idea. For example, you could search for a 'heart attack', or you can use the medical term 'myocardial infarction'. Maybe you're in a 'marketing' class, but really you want to focus on 'advertising'. Synonyms can help you get different results, but if the alternate word is used more in research it could help yield larger search results.
  • Try another database! Different databases have access to different sets of journals and other resources. You can use the same keywords in different databases and you should see resources not found in the databases you've already used.


Further Reading & Online Resources