Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples

A research question pinpoints exactly what you want to find out in your work. A good research question is essential to guide your research paper, dissertation, or thesis.

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
Writing Strong Research Questions
  
You will usually write a single research question to guide your progress in a research paper or academic essay. Your answer then forms your thesis statement—the central assertion or position that your paper will argue for.

A bigger research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, may necessitate multiple research questions or problem statements. However, they should all be clearly connected and focused around a central research problem.

How to write a research question

You can follow these steps to develop a strong research question:

The way you frame your question depends on what your research aims to achieve. The table below shows some examples of how you might formulate questions for different purposes.

Research objectives Research question formulations
Describing and exploring
  • What are the characteristics of X?
  • How has X changed over time?
  • What are the causes of X?
  • How has X dealt with Y?
Explaining and testing
  • What is the relationship between X and Y?
  • What is the role of X in Y?
  • What is the impact of X on Y?
  • How does X influence Y?
Evaluating and acting
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of X?
  • How effective is X?
  • How can X be improved?

Using your research problem to develop your research question

Example research problem Example research question(s)
Teachers at the school do not have the skills to recognize or properly guide gifted children in the classroom. What practical techniques can teachers use to better identify and guide gifted children?
Young people increasingly engage in the “gig economy,” rather than traditional full-time employment. However, it is unclear why they choose to do so. What are the main factors influencing young people’s decisions to engage in the gig economy?

Note that while most research questions can be answered with various types of research, the way you frame your question should help determine your choices.

What makes a strong 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

Criteria Explanation
Focused on a single topic Your central research question should work together with your research problem to keep your work focused. If you have multiple questions, they should all clearly tie back to your central aim.
Answerable using credible sources Your question must be answerable using quantitative and/or qualitative data, or by reading scholarly sources on the topic to develop your argument. If such data is impossible to access, you likely need to rethink your question.
Not based on value judgements Avoid subjective words like good, bad, better and worse. These do not give clear criteria for answering the question.

  • Is X or Y a better policy?
  • How effective are X and Y policies at reducing rates of Z?

Feasible and specific

Criteria Explanation
Answerable within practical constraints Make sure you have enough time and resources to do all research required to answer your question. If it seems you will not be able to gain access to the data you need, consider narrowing down your question to be more specific.
Uses specific, well-defined concepts All the terms you use in the research question should have clear meanings. Avoid vague language, jargon, and too-broad ideas.

  • What effect does social media have on people’s minds?
  • What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of 16-year-olds at your local high school?
Does not demand a conclusive solution, policy, or course of action Research is about informing, not instructing. Even if your project is focused on a practical problem, it should aim to improve understanding rather than demand 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 those aged 18-30?

Complex and arguable

Criteria Explanation
Cannot be answered with yes or no Closed-ended, yes/no questions are too simple to work as good research questions—they don’t provide enough scope for robust investigation and discussion.

  • Has there been an increase in those experiencing homelessness in the US in the past ten years?
  • How have economic and political factors affected patterns of experiencing homelessness in the US over the past ten years?
Cannot be answered with easily-found facts If you can answer the question through a single Google search, book, or article, it is probably not complex enough. A good research question requires original data, synthesis of multiple sources, and original interpretation and argumentation prior to providing an answer.

Relevant and original

Criteria Explanation
Addresses a relevant problem Your research question should be developed based on initial reading around your topic. It should focus on addressing a problem or gap in the existing knowledge in your field or discipline.
Contributes to a timely social or academic debate The question should aim to contribute to an existing and current debate in your field or in society at large. It should produce knowledge that future researchers or practitioners can later build on.
Has not already been answered You don’t have to ask something that nobody has ever thought of before, but your question should have some aspect of originality. For example, you can focus on a specific location, or explore a new angle.

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Using sub-questions to strengthen your main research question

Chances are that your main research question likely can’t be answered all at once. That’s why sub-questions are important: they allow you to answer your main question in a step-by-step manner.

Good sub-questions should be:

  • Less complex than the main question
  • Focused only on 1 type of research
  • Presented in a logical order

Here are a few examples of descriptive and framing questions:

  • Descriptive: According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented?
  • Descriptive: Which countries have a bank tax/levy on financial transactions?
  • Framing: How should a bank tax/levy on financial transactions look at a European level?

Keep in mind that sub-questions are by no means mandatory. They should only be asked if you need the findings to answer your main question. If your main question is simple enough to stand on its own, it’s okay to skip the sub-question part. As a rule of thumb, the more complex your subject, the more sub-questions you’ll need.

Try to limit yourself to 4 or 5 sub-questions, maximum. If you feel you need more than this, it may be indication that your main research question is not sufficiently specific. In this case, it’s is better to revisit your problem statement and try to tighten your main question up.

Research questions quiz

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Frequently asked questions about research questions

Should I use a research question, hypothesis, or thesis statement?

The way you present your research problem in your introduction varies depending on the nature of your research paper. A research paper that presents a sustained argument will usually encapsulate this argument in a thesis statement.

A research paper designed to present the results of empirical research tends to present a research question that it seeks to answer. It may also include a hypothesis—a prediction that will be confirmed or disproved by your research.

How can I tell which sources are relevant to my research?

As you cannot possibly read every source related to your topic, it’s important to evaluate sources to assess their relevance. Use preliminary evaluation to determine whether a source is worth examining in more depth.

This involves:

What’s the difference between a research hypothesis and a statistical hypothesis?

A research hypothesis is your proposed answer to your research question. The research hypothesis usually includes an explanation (“x affects y because …”).

A statistical hypothesis, on the other hand, is a mathematical statement about a population parameter. Statistical hypotheses always come in pairs: the null and alternative hypotheses. In a well-designed study, the statistical hypotheses correspond logically to the research hypothesis.

How do I write questions to ask for research?

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
Writing Strong Research Questions
How do I know I have a good main research question?

Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement.

However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  1. Researchability
  2. Feasibility and specificity
  3. Relevance and originality

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.