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ASIA 344: Asia in Motion

What is a Research Question?

A research question is the question around which you center your research. Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.

Your research question should be:

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate about.

The question you ask should be developed for the discipline you are studying. A question appropriate for Biology, for instance, is different from an appropriate one in Political Science or Sociology. You may want to discuss your ideas for a research question with your professor.


from GMU Writing Center's How to Write a Research Question

Some Things to Keep in Mind

  • Look for a variety of sources including books, journal articles, essays in books, etc.
  • Use different search tools available to you: Primo and the many databases available through Collins are great starting points. You can also look into Google Scholar. You can also use these available subject guides if you are looking to incorporate more interdisciplinary perspectives into your research. 
  • Don't leave your research to the last minute. Research takes time and you will likely experience some frustrations and setbacks. Give yourself enough time to work through the process, request materials from other libraries, and revise your work. 
  • Use Summit and interlibrary loan services to access materials that are not available in Collins.
  • Use a note and citation system or tool that works for you. We recommend using Zotero or RefWorks!
  • Reach out to your liaison librarian if you are feeling stuck or have questions! 


Forming a Research Question

Research is not passive reporting, it is a search for answers. A research question is what drives your research project; it is something that you want to know about your topic and it is something you want to explore and try to answer in your research project. 

Research typically begins with a topic that has piqued your curiosity. When you're researching a topic, you typically are interested in questions of who, what, where and when.

As you learn more about your chosen topic, however, you'll discover that scholars may have different approaches and arguments about the topic, and you'll start to ask your own research questions. Research questions typically begin with why or how.

When you've selected a research question to explore and are ready to make an argument as to how to answer it, you'll come up with a thesis.

Related Subject Guides

Building Research Questions

You'll want to start by narrowing down your research topic into a research question. You'll work individually and in pairs to complete the worksheet here. Download a copy so you can edit and save it for your upcoming research paper. When discussing your topic and question with your group, consider the following criteria to determine the viability of your research question:

  • Not easily answered with a simple yes or no

  • Has an underlying problem of social significance (local, national, or international)

  • Poses a genuine question and aims for neutrality (Neutrality in this sense means there is no predetermined answer and you are arguing based on where your research could take you. You should ultimately argue for a position.)

  • Can be answered with reliable evidence (are you able to find scholarly research about your question? Try looking in a database!)

  • Has appropriate scope (not too broad or too narrow)

Steps to Developing a Research Question

  1. Choose an interesting general topic. Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying. Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more. An example of a general topic might be “Slavery in the American South” or “Films of the 1930s.”
  2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick searches in current periodicals and journals on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus. What issues are scholars and researchers discussing, when it comes to your topic? What questions occur to you as you read these articles?
  3. Consider your audience. For most college papers, your audience will be academic, but always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. Would that particular audience be interested in the question you are developing?
  4. Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “Why were slave narratives effective tools in working toward the abolishment of slavery?” or “How did the films of the 1930s reflect or respond to the conditions of the Great Depression?”
  5. Evaluate your question. After you’ve put a question or even a couple of questions down on paper, evaluate these questions to determine whether they would be effective research questions or whether they need more revising and refining.
    • Is your research question clear? With so much research available on any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research.
    • Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available.
    • Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts.  They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer. They often begin with “How” or “Why.”
  6. Begin your research. After you’ve come up with a question, think about the possible paths your research could take. What sources should you consult as you seek answers to your question? What research process will ensure that you find a variety of perspectives and responses to your question?