Chapter 9: The Research Process

9.1 Developing a Research Question

Emilie Zickel

“I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don’t have any resolutions for, and when I’m finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don’t write out of what I know. It’s what I don’t know that stimulates me.”Toni Morrison, author and Northeast Ohio native

Think of a research paper as an opportunity to deepen (or create!) knowledge about a topic that matters to you. Just as Toni Morrison states that she is stimulated by what she doesn’t yet know, a research paper assignment can be interesting and meaningful if it allows you to explore what you don’t know.

Research, at its best, is an act of knowledge creation, not just an extended book report. This knowledge creation is the essence of any great educational experience. Instead of being lectured at, you get to design the learning project that will ultimately result in you experiencing and then expressing your own intellectual growth. You get to read what you choose, and you get to become an expert on your topic.

That sounds, perhaps, like a lofty goal. But by spending some quality time brainstorming, reading, thinking or otherwise tuning into what matters to you, you can end up with a workable research topic that will lead you on an enjoyable research journey.

The best research topics are meaningful to you

  • Choose a topic that you want to understand better.
  • Choose a topic that you want to read about and devote time to
  • Choose a topic that is perhaps a bit out of your comfort zone
  • Choose a topic that allows you to understand others’ opinions and how those opinions are shaped.
  • Choose something that is relevant to you, personally or professionally.
  • Do not choose a topic because you think it will be “easy” – those can end up being even quite challenging

The video below offers ideas on choosing not only a topic that you are drawn to, but a topic that is realistic and manageable for a college writing class.

“Choosing a Manageable Research Topic” by PfaulLibrary is licensed under CC BY

Brainstorming Ideas for a Research Topic

Which question(s) below interest you? Which question(s) below spark a desire to respond? A good topic is one that moves you to think, to do, to want to know more, to want to say more. 

There are many ways to come up with a good topic. The best thing to do is to give yourself time to think about what you really want to commit days and weeks to reading, thinking, researching, more reading, writing, more researching, reading and writing on.

  1. What news stories do you often see and want to know more about?
  2. What would you love to become an expert on?
  3. What are you passionate about?
  4. What are you scared of?
  5. What problem in the world needs to be solved?
  6. What are the key controversies or current debates in the field of work that you want to go into?
  7. What is the biggest issue facing [specific group of people: by age, by race, by gender, by ethnicity, by nationality, by geography, by economic standing? choose a group]
  8. What area/landmark/piece of history in your home community are you interested in?
  9. What global problem do you want to better understand?
  10. What local problem do you want to better understand?
  11. Is there some element of the career that you would like to have one day that you want to better understand?
  12. Consider researching the significance of a song, or an artist, or a musician, or a novel/film/short story/comic, or an art form on some aspect of the broader culture.

From Topic to Research Question

Once you have decided on a research topic, an area for academic exploration that matters to you, it is time to start thinking about what you want to learn about that topic.

The goal of college-level research assignments is never going to be to simply “go find sources” on your topic. Instead, think of sources as helping you to answer a research question or a series of research questions about your topic. These should not be simple questions with simple answers, but rather complex questions about which there is no easy or obvious answer.

A compelling research question is one that may involve controversy, or may have a variety of answers, or may not have any single, clear answer. All of that is okay and even desirable. If the answer is an easy and obvious one, then there is little need for argument or research.

Make sure that your research question is clear, specific, researchable, and limited (but not too limited). Most of all, make sure that you are curious about your own research question. If it does not matter to you, researching it will feel incredibly boring and tedious.

The video below includes a deeper explanation of what a good research question is as well as examples of strong research questions:

“Creating a Good Research Question” by CII GSU

 Research Question Guidelines

  • Your research question is based on a topic that genuinely interests you
  • Your question is not a simple “yes/no” question
  • Your research question does not have an easy, obvious answer (a quick google check of your research question should reveal whether there is an easy, obvious answer. If so, this means that you need to revise and refine your question)
  • The research question asks “how?” or “in what ways,” or “what”?
  • The research question is focused, specific, narrow (enough)
  • The research question is researchable. It is not asking about the future or about areas of faith, where we cannot find hard evidence about what is

Self-Check Quiz


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