Creating a Research Question

Undergraduate research at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is an amazing opportunity for students to pursue, is celebrated by faculty and staff, and helps many students to explore their passions through research. To learn more about their program, visit the URP homepage.
As a student, I know that research can be appealing not only for the personal interest that it provides but also for the practical experience that it can contribute to future professions. One of the practical questions that students who want to begin in the undergraduate research program ask is, “what do I want to research?”
Creating a research question is one of the first ways to get started with undergraduate research. So…how do you pick a research question? What constitutes a good research question? Beginning to think about these questions is essential for students wanting to step into the world of undergraduate research.

What is a research question?

To start thinking about what would be an appropriate research question to ask, the definition of a research question must be explored. A research question is essentially a clear, focused, concise, and arguable question that you can focus your research on. This can and will look different for each person, as people are not monoliths: they each have different interests, ways of thinking, and ideas for their research.

Find a topic that interests you

To begin thinking about what you want to research, think about a field or topic that is particularly interesting to you. For example, if education and personality are two topics of interest, you could make a list of ways in which those two topics could intersect. To take my example above, you could examine introversion and extroversion in the classroom, how personality affects where students choose to sit in a lecture hall, or how the personality of the teacher affects student perceptions of the subject being taught. These are just examples, but beginning to write out some options helps immensely in the research process. Also, it is key that you are interested in your topic, since it is plausible that you will invest a good amount of time into writing proposals, research, and dissemination.

Pre-research

The next step in the process is to begin doing a bit of preliminary research on the topic. This doesn’t have to be anything extensive but having an understanding of what other research and resources are available to you is a helpful thing. A little pre-research on google or through the library databases can help you see any ways to modify and strengthen your question.

Significance

Your question should hold significance, as it must be both meaningful to you and helpful or interesting to those you would be presenting to. For example, if I were to research the impact of collaboration and group work on introverted students in the classroom, this would be interesting to me and informative for both students and educators.

Too broad? Too narrow?

Another aspect to consider when creating a research question is, “is my question too broad or too narrow?” Looking at an umbrella topic, such as childhood obesity, could result in too many options of how to move forward with research. Likewise, looking too specifically at a topic can yield little to no results. Finding a topic that is a manageable size to research is important, saving a lot of time and stress throughout the research process.

Further Resources

There are multiple excellent resources that are available to students who are creating a research question. Below, find two helpful links and one short informational video.
George Mason University’s Writing Center provides multiple quick guides to help with a variety of writing needs. Check out their guide entitled “How to write a research question.”
Grand Canyon University also provides an example of a step-by-step formulation of a research question on their center for innovation in research and teaching website.
Finally, Georgia State University’s Center for Instruction and Innovation created a short video explaining the process of creating a research question. View the video below: