Developing strong research questions

A good research question is essential to guide your research paper, project or thesis. It pinpoints exactly what you want to find out and gives your work a clear focus and purpose. All research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly

In a research paper or essay, you will usually write a single research question to guide your reading and thinking. The answer that you develop is your thesis statement — the central assertion or position that your paper will argue for.

In a bigger research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, you might have multiple research questions, but they should all be clearly connected and focused around a central research problem.

There are many types of research question that correspond to different types of research.

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How to define your research problem

After you have settled on a topic for your research, the next step is to narrow it down further and define a research problem: the specific issue, difficulty, contradiction, or gap in knowledge that you will address.

Depending on the type of research, you might look for practical problems aimed at contributing to change, or theoretical problems aimed at expanding knowledge. Bear in mind that some research will do both of these things, but usually the research problem focuses on one or the other.

This article helps you identify and refine a research problem. When writing your research proposal or introduction, you will have to formulate it in a problem statement and/or research questions.

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How to write a problem statement

After you have identified a research problem for your project, the next step is to write a problem statement. An effective problem statement is concise and concrete. It should:

  • Put the problem in context (what do we already know?)
  • Describe the precise issue that the research will address (what do we need to know?)
  • Show the relevance of the problem (why do we need to know it?)
  • Set the objectives of the research (what will you do to find out?)

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Choosing a dissertation topic

Deciding on a topic for your thesis, dissertation or research project is the first step in making sure your research goes as smoothly as possible. When choosing a topic, it’s important to consider:

  • Your institution and department’s requirements
  • Your areas of knowledge and interest
  • The scientific, social, or practical relevance
  • The availability of data and sources
  • The length and timeframe of your dissertation

If you have no dissertation ideas yet, it can be hard to know where to start. Follow these steps to begin narrowing down your ideas.

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How to write a thesis conclusion

The conclusion is the very last part of your thesis or dissertation. Its main purposes are to:

  • Clearly state the answer to the main research question
  • Summarize and reflect on the research
  • Make recommendations for future work on the topic
  • Show what new knowledge you have contributed

The conclusion should be concise and engaging. Aim to leave the reader with a clear understanding of the main discovery or argument that your research has advanced.

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How to write a discussion section

The discussion chapter is where you delve into the meaning, importance and relevance of your results. It should focus on explaining and evaluating what you found, showing how it relates to your literature review and research questions, and making an argument in support of your overall conclusion. There are many different ways to write this section, but you can focus your discussion around four key elements:

  • Interpretations: what do the results mean?
  • Implications: why do the results matter?
  • Limitations: what can’t the results tell us?
  • Recommendations: what practical actions or scientific studies should follow?

There is often overlap between the discussion and conclusion, and in some dissertations these two sections are included in a single chapter. Occasionally, the results and discussion will be combined into one chapter. If you’re unsure of the best structure for your research, look at sample dissertations in your field or consult your supervisor.

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How to write an abstract

An abstract is a short summary of a larger work, such as a dissertation or research paper. It allows potential readers to quickly identify what your paper is about and decide if it’s worth reading. All abstracts should include:

The abstract appears at the very beginning of a document, but it should be the last thing you write. In a dissertation or thesis, include it on a separate page, after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents.

Most abstracts are around 150-300 words, but the length depends on the requirements of your assignmentoften you will be given a strict word limit.

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How to write a dissertation introduction

The introduction is the first chapter of your thesis or dissertation and appears right after the table of contents. It’s essential to draw the reader in with a strong beginning. Set the stage for your research with a clear focus, purpose and direction. The introduction should include:

  • Topic and context: what does the reader need to know to understand the dissertation?
  • Focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
  • Relevance and importance: how does the research fit into existing work on this topic?
  • Questions and objectives: what does the research aim to find out and how?
  • Overview of the structure: what does each chapter of the dissertation contribute to the overall aim?

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How to write a research methodology

In your thesis or dissertation, you will have to discuss the methods you used to do your research. The methodology or methods section explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research. It should include:

  • The type of research you did
  • How you collected and/or selected your data
  • How you analyzed your data
  • Any tools or materials you used in the research
  • Your rationale for choosing these methods

The methodology section should generally be written in the past tense.

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How to write a literature review

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) on a particular topic. It gives an overview of key findings, concepts and developments in relation to a research problem or question. A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sourcesit aims to:

  • Analyze, interpret and critically evaluate the literature
  • Synthesize sources to highlight patterns, themes, conflicts, and gaps
  • Show the state of current knowledge in relation to a central research question or hypothesis

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