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Fiat Lux: What Are Research Questions?

This is a copy of a guide created by Lindsay Davis while working at UC Merced. She presented this series at SCIL Works 2019.

Developing a Research Question Takes Research

Be curious

When the scope of your paper is too big, it's hard to dig through information and to write a paper wit any depth. The goal of most research papers in college is to seek a possible answer to a particular questions related to a topic. A research question, when not too broad or too narrow, helps guide and focus your paper.

The question should also be one in which you haven't decided on a pre-determined answer. You may find that looking for sources that provide a certain answer may be too limiting. The answer you are expecting might not be supported by evidence.

Brainstorm & do some pre-research

The research question isn't a question you make up at the top of your head. It's normal to start with a broad topic in mind. After doing some brainstorming about a topic, you will need to do some reading to find an angle to pursue, and, even then, your question may change as you find more information later.

Ask questions

From your pre-research, think about questions you might be able to ask regarding the topic. Most scholarly research examines fairly narrow topics and looks at relationships between concepts. One way to limit the scope of your topic is to ask who, what, where, when, why, and how questions.

Be flexible

It's okay to continue to tweak your question; the end result should be that you have answered the question you've laid out in the introduction, even if the introduction is the last paragraph you actually end up revising in your final paper.


What are college students' sleep habits?

Developing a Reserarch Question

Steely Library NKU (4:33)


Keeping your research question in mind, if you can answer TRUE to the statements below, your research question is probably workable.

  • It cannot simply be answered with a yes/no or a "list."
  • It has social significance/a problem associated with it.
  • There is reliable evidence available to address it.
  • It has appropriate scope.


Do these meet the criteria for a "good" research question? Why or why not? (While research is needed to make a determination, we're taking these at face value.)

  • Group 1: Why do students procrastinate?
  • Group 2: How does deportation affect families?
  • Group 3: How does social media affect identity?
  • Group 4: How does mental health stigma affect the Hispanic/Latinx community?
  • Group 5: What factors shape workplace satisfaction?