New College Writing Program

Formulating a Research Question

One way to summarize the difference between high school and college work is that in high school you were trained to answer questions that were put to you. As a student in the university, you must decide which questions are most important to ask, and more, which are most important to pursue with all your intellectual energy.

Carefully posing questions is a very important activity for academic researchers, the ranks of whom you have now joined. A research question emerges from interest and necessity and points to the direction of further inquiry. But as your work with exercises associated with this section of the text as probably made clear to you, coming up with a research question capable of moving you in a clear direction of inquiry will also take time and careful thought. 

While students are often told to begin research projects with a thesis statement, that is, the main claim they will support with their research, our point is that before a student can arrive at a thesis, she or he must first gather strong knowledge and certainty about a topic in order even to conceive of let alone argue a thesis.  Again, a process of inquiry is first necessary.

Consider the following examples of research questions: 

  • What are the most effective dietary changes for treating depression and anxiety?
  • How can we best measure climate change in Sonoran desert regions?
  • What kind of learners are most successful in online environments?
  • What kind of training would best prepare local law enforcement and service providers to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking that might otherwise go unnoticed or unaddressed?
  • What can local schools do to maintain the quality of education in the face of major budget cuts?
  • What cultural factors have led to the rise in popularity of zombie film, fiction, and television?
  • What can colleges and universities do to reduce the amount of binge drinking on campus?
  • What steps can homeless shelters take to best ensure cooperation and partnership from the surrounding community?

Notice some of the features of the research questions above. All of these questions name or describe complicated situations not easily or quickly understood. The questions likewise inquire into situations or experiences that exist in the immediate lives of most college students. Also notice that these questions suggest very different disciplinary paths of inquiry and very different research methodologies.  And finally, please note that these are not “Yes-or-No” questions.

The interdisciplinary research method to which you are introduced in this course opens to multiple possibilities, disciplinary perspectives, and directions for inquiry. “Yes-or-No” questions move toward closure from the beginning. A good research question clearly states what we want to find out, and it maps out a serious course of research and critical thought. Certainly, as it should, serious research moves toward definitive answers, but the questions that launch that research begin as tough ones, puzzlers that stump us. Otherwise why spend the time pursuing them?

To that end, let's get to work! Please refer to the Exercises associated with Formulating a Research Question.

Your instructor may also ask you to read Bruce Ballenger's essay, "Let's Stop Thesis Tyranny," which we think makes a strong argument for putting questions at the center of the kind of work we're doing in this course. 

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