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EMPOWER: Choosing Your Topic: Research Question

Direction for Research

woman writingYou've narrowed (or broadened) your topic, and you've thought about how it relates to your class.  However, you’re still not really done defining your topic. Before you begin research, you should formulate a research question.

Many students struggle with this, because they don't understand the difference between a research question, topic, and a thesis statement.

A research question seeks an answer. It directs your research, because you'll spend your time working with sources that will help you answer the question(s) you've posed that will direct your thesis statement.

A topic is the main concept behind the research question and thesis statement.

A thesis statement is the answer to the question your paper explores. (More about thesis statements in a few more pages.)

A good research question...

  • Can be studied in depth in the space required in the paper (or the length limitations of an oral presentation).
  • Demands research and analysis of the topic.
  • Provides reasonable hope that enough information is available to answer the question.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

To develop a research question, try using one of these question starters to formulate a research question of your own:

WHY? Why did Greensburg, Kansas rebuild as a "green" town after the 2007 tornado?
HOW? How did the Greensburg event affect other towns rebuilding after a natural disaster?
WHAT? What is the relationship between Greensburg businesses and charter supporters of the rebuilding, such as Sun Chips and Ben & Jerry's?

Time for a brain check!

thinkingTry out the following for yourself, determining whether each question is a good one or a bad one. *

What are the main features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and what can be done both to treat and prevent this condition? Should all alcohol containers carry a warning?


What happened in Greece in May 2010?


How could the looting of the museums in Iraq in 2003 have been avoided?


What are the ethical implications of human cloning?



* - The above four questions and explanations are based on Research Strategies: Finding your way Through the Information Fog by William B. Badke, New York: IUniverse, Inc., 2004. pp. 15-16.