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.

How to write a research question

The process of developing your research question follows several steps:

When you have a clearly-defined problem, you need to formulate one or more questions. Think about exactly what you want to know and how it will contribute to resolving the problem.

Example research problemExample research question(s)
The teachers at school X do not have the skills to recognize or properly guide gifted children in the classroom.What practical techniques can teachers at school X use to better identify and guide gifted children?
Under-30s increasingly engage in the “gig economy” instead of traditional full-time employment, but there is little research into young people’s experiences of this type of work.What are the main factors that influence young people’s decisions to engage in the gig economy? What do workers perceive as its advantages and disadvantages? Do age and education level have an effect on how people experience this type of work?

Types of research questions

Both qualitative and quantitative research require research questions. The type of question you use depends on what you want to find out about, and it will shape your research design and choice of methods.

The table below shows some of the most common types of research questions. Bear in mind that many academic research questions will be more complex than these examples, often combining two or more types.

Research question typeFormulation
Descriptive researchWhat are the characteristics of X?
Comparative researchWhat are the differences and similarities between X and Y?
Correlational researchWhat is the relationship between variable X and variable Y?
Exploratory researchWhat are the main factors in X? What is the role of Y in Z?
Explanatory researchDoes X have an effect on Y? What is the impact of Y on Z? What are the causes of X?
Evaluation researchWhat are the advantages and disadvantages of X? How well does Y work? How effective or desirable is Z?
Action researchHow can X be achieved? What are the most effective strategies to improve Y?

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What makes a strong research question?

Writing questions isn’t a difficult task in itself, but it can be hard to work out if you have a good research question. Research questions anchor your whole project, so it’s important to spend some time refining them. The criteria below can help you evaluate the strength of your research question.

Focused and researchable

CriteriaExplanation
Focuses on a single topic and problemYour central research question should follow from your research problem to keep your work focused. If you have multiple questions, they should all clearly relate to this central aim.
Answerable using primary or secondary dataYou must be able to find an answer by collecting quantitative and/or qualitative data, or by reading scholarly sources on the topic to develop an argument. If such data is impossible to access, you will have to rethink your question and ask something more concrete.
Does not ask for a subjective value judgementAvoid subjective words like good, bad, better and worse, as these do not give clear criteria for answering the question. If your question is evaluating something, use terms with more measurable definitions.

  • Is X or Y a better policy?
  • How effective are X and Y policies at reducing rates of Z?
Does not ask whyWhy questions are usually too open to serve as good research questions. There are often so many possible causes that a research project cannot give a thorough answer. Try asking what or how questions instead.

  • Why does X occur?
  • What are the main factors contributing to X?
  • How is X influenced by Y?

Feasible and specific

CriteriaExplanation
Answerable within practical constraintsMake sure you have enough time and resources to do the research required to answer the question. If you think you might struggle to gain access to enough data, consider narrowing down the question to be more specific.
Uses specific, well-defined conceptsAll the terms you use in the research question should have clear meanings. Avoid vague language and broad ideas, and be clear about what, who, where and when your question addresses.

  • What effect does social media have on people’s minds?
  • What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of under-16s?
Does not ask for a conclusive solution, policy, or course of actionResearch is about informing, not instructing. Even if your project is focused on a practical problem, it should aim to improve understanding and suggest possibilities rather than asking for a ready-made solution.

  • What should the government do about low voter turnout?
  • What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing voter turnout among under-30s?

Complex and arguable

CriteriaExplanation
Cannot be answered with yes or noClosed yes/no questions are too simple to work as good research questions — they don’t provide enough scope for investigation and discussion.

  • Has there been an increase in homelessness in the UK in the past ten years?
  • How have economic, political and social factors affected patterns of homelessness in the UK over the past ten years?
Cannot be answered with easily found facts and figuresIf you can answer the question through a Google search or by reading a single book or article, it is probably not complex enough. A good research question requires original data, synthesis of multiple sources, interpretation and/or argument to provide an answer.
Provides scope for debate and deliberationThe answer to the question should not just be a simple statement of fact: there needs to be space for you to discuss and interpret what you found. This is especially important in an essay or research paper, where the answer to your question often takes the form of an argumentative thesis statement.

Relevant and original

CriteriaExplanation
Addresses a problem relevant to your field or disciplineThe research question should be developed based on initial reading around your topic, and it should focus on addressing a problem or gap in the existing knowledge.
Contributes to a topical social or academic debateThe question should aim to contribute to an existing debate — ideally one that is current in your field or in society at large. It should produce knowledge that future researchers or practitioners can build on.
Has not already been answeredYou don’t have to ask something groundbreaking that nobody has ever thought of before, but the question should have some aspect of originality (for example, by focusing on a specific location or taking a new angle on a long-running debate).

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Shona McCombes

Shona has an MLitt in English Literature and an MA in Gender Studies, so she's an expert at writing a great master's thesis. She has also been an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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