Part 2: The research process
2.1 Research questions
Questions for reflection
- Think about the last time that you did research. What kind of research did you do? Were you able to find all the sources you needed? If not, what kind of sources did you struggle to find?
- How do you use the internet when you research? What kind of sites do you visit? Why?
- What does academic integrity mean to you?
- How do you determine what sources to trust online?
- If you’ve also attended school in a different country, how does that school system teach source use?
Both professional researchers and successful student researchers develop research questions. That’s because research questions are more than handy tools; they are essential to the research process.
By defining exactly what the researcher is trying to find out, these questions influence most of the rest of the steps taken to conduct the research. That’s true even if the research is not for academic purposes but for other areas of our lives.
For instance, if you’re seeking information about a health problem in order to learn whether you have anything to worry about, research questions will make it possible for you to more effectively decide whether to seek medical help–and how quickly.
Or, if you’re researching a potential employer, having developed and used research questions will mean you’re able to more confidently decide whether to apply for an internship or job there.
The confidence you’ll have when making such decisions will come from knowing that the information they’re based on was gathered by conscious thought rather than serendipity and whim.
Narrowing a topic
For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their university research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”
Process of narrowing a topic
Visualize narrowing a topic as starting with all possible topics and choosing narrower and narrower subsets until you have a specific enough topic to form a research question.
All possible topics – You’ll need to narrow your topic in order to do research effectively. Without specific areas of focus, it will be hard to even know where to begin.
Assigned topics – Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. Often, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you. One way to get ideas is to read background information in a source like Wikipedia.
Topic narrowed by initial exploration – It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic to a) learn more about it and b) learn specialized terms used by professionals and scholars who study it.
Topic narrowed to research question(s) – A research question defines exactly what you are trying to find out. It will influence most of the steps you take to conduct the research.
It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic once you have it. For one reason, you probably don’t know much about it yet. For another, such reading will help you learn the terms used by professionals and scholars who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms are certain to be helpful when you’re looking for sources later, so jot them down or otherwise remember them.
For instance, if you were going to do research about the treatment for humans with bird flu, this background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term avian influenza instead of bird flu when they write about it. (Often, they also use H1N1 or H1N9 to identify the strain.) If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment.
Most sources other than journal articles are good sources for this initial reading, including the Globe and Mail or other mainline Canadian news outlets, Wikipedia, encyclopedias for the discipline your topic is in, dictionaries for the discipline, and manuals, handbooks, blogs, and web pages that could be relevant.
This initial reading could cause you to narrow your topic further, which is fine because narrower topics lead to greater specificity for what you have to find out. After this upfront work, you’re ready to start developing the research question(s) you will try to answer for your assignment.
Developing your research question
Because of all their influence, you might worry that research questions are very difficult to develop. Sometimes it can seem that way. But we’ll help you get the hang of it and, luckily, none of us has to come up with perfect ones right off. It’s more like doing a rough draft and then improving it. That’s why we talk about developing research questions instead of just writing them.
Steps for developing a research question
The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.
Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).
Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.
Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.
Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.
Step 5: Revise question you’re interested in so that it is more focused and less vague.
After you think of each research question, evaluate it by asking whether it is:
- Logically related to the topic
- In question form
- Not answerable with a quick Google search
- Specific, not vague
Sometimes the first draft of a research question is still too broad, which can make your search for sources more challenging. Refining your question to remove vagueness or to target a specific aspect of the topic can help.
Most of us look for information to answer questions every day, but research questions are different from what we might call “regular questions.”
|Regular question||Research question|
|What time does the movie start?||How can movie theatres use attendance and sales data to inform scheduling of upcoming films?|
|Who invented the first computer?||Why is the lifespan of new technologies decreasing?|
|What is social media?||Why is social media an important tool to use in post-secondary classrooms?|
|Which store in my neighbourhood has the lowest priced produce?||How does the location of a store affect the types and prices of produce offered for sale?|
This chapter contains information taken from multiple sources:
- The Purpose of Research Questions, Narrowing a Topic, Background Reading, Developing your Research Question, and Regular vs Research Questions in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, which is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license
- The Research Process in Business Writing for Everyone, which is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.