Develop a research question

Printable version of Develop a Research Question (PDF).

A research question guides your research. It provides boundaries, so that when you gather resources you focus only on information that helps to answer your question. Without this guide, you would simply gather a collection of facts, not knowing when and where to end your search for information. 

Where Do I Begin?

Good research questions come from solid research topics. For more information, see our resource Developing and Narrowing a Topic.

From a Topic to a Problem

Once you narrow your topic, you need to think about related problems. The goal of research is to answer questions that help to solve one of these larger problems. Using bicycle lanes in urban areas as our topic, we can start to generate some potential problems:

Topic:

  bicycle lanes in urban areas

Potential problems: 

  • bike lanes are not being used

  • bike lanes interfere with traffic flow

  • bike lanes are not consistently integrated into cities

  • bike lanes are not being respected

Where do I find problems?

Look at current research on your topic in academic articles or reliable web sources. The motivation (or problem) behind others’ research is often discussed in the abstract or introduction.

From a Problem to a Question

Once you find a current problem that can help to motivate your research, you need to develop a question that helps to answer the problem. Let’s use one of the problems above as an example:

Problem:

  bike lanes are not consistently integrated into cities

Potential questions: 

  • how does public perception of safety affect policy toward bike lane infrastructure?

  • how do economic incentives affect policy-making for bicycle lane infrastructure?

  • how do municipal level policies affect the design and building of bike lane infrastructure?

Tip: The mistake that most novice researchers make is to attempt to answer a question that’s too big to answer through a single research project. Keep it narrow.

Characteristics of effective research questions

Tip: To better understand disciplinary requirements for your research, talk to your professors and look for resources in your discipline. 

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