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.

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 problem Example 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 kind of question you use depends on what you want to find out about and the type of research you want to do. It will shape your research design.

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 type Formulation
Descriptive research What are the characteristics of X?
Comparative research What are the differences and similarities between X and Y?
Correlational research What is the relationship between variable X and variable Y?
Exploratory research What are the main factors in X? What is the role of Y in Z?
Explanatory research Does X have an effect on Y? What is the impact of Y on Z? What are the causes of X?
Evaluation research What are the advantages and disadvantages of X? How well does Y work? How effective or desirable is Z?
Action research How 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

Criteria Explanation
Focuses on a single topic and problem Your 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 data You 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 judgement Avoid 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 why Why 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

Criteria Explanation
Answerable within practical constraints Make 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 concepts All 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 action Research 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

Criteria Explanation
Cannot be answered with yes or no Closed 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 and political factors affected patterns of homelessness in the UK over the past ten years?
Cannot be answered with easily found facts and figures If 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 deliberation The 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

Criteria Explanation
Addresses a problem relevant to your field or discipline The 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 debate The 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 answered You 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).

Research questions quiz

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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.

21 comments

Abdul Halim Nasery
September 20, 2020 at 11:23 AM

Thank you for the details. In the mean time, I would like to conduct an morphometric survey of indeginous goats, so what questions can be used in this?

Regards

Reply

Christy
September 20, 2020 at 8:27 AM

This is great! The presentation is very simple, my high school research class will definitely learn from this. Thank you very much. I will give this site as one of their references.

Reply

Eriab Lawson Thembo
September 13, 2020 at 7:05 PM

It is a good guide. Thanks!

Reply

sandrah lindiwe gumbo
July 28, 2020 at 4:28 PM

l am doing a diploma in HIV/AIDS MANAGEMENT may u assist me in coming up with problem statement

Reply

Stephen N. Ndode
April 14, 2020 at 10:30 AM

Very useful guide!

Reply

Amadu Gbandeh
March 4, 2020 at 3:55 PM

I want to choose a research topic for my dissertation but am in a complete doubt of what topic I can choose. Can you please help me with some ways to choose a research topic? Especially in the clinical department.

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
March 9, 2020 at 2:09 PM

Hi Amadu,

I can't help you with specific topics in your field, but for some tips on narrowing down your ideas, read our guide to choosing a dissertation topic.

Hope that helps!

Reply

Amadu Gbandeh
March 4, 2020 at 3:51 PM

Thanks dear, you've really helped me stay on track for my dissertation writing. Now I can do a very precise dissertation write up.

Reply

ALI
January 27, 2020 at 10:57 PM

Shona, thanks for the straight points, i am struggling with my evaluation research and this has just given me some ideas

Reply

Mohamed Fofanah
January 21, 2020 at 2:17 AM

Thanks very much pretty. This work has helped me a lot.

Reply

Christia
January 28, 2020 at 11:27 AM

It really helped me. Thank you

Reply

Gerald
October 4, 2019 at 10:07 AM

Now I understand am grateful pls about to write project I don't how to go about it.

Reply

NORAH
October 1, 2020 at 3:52 PM

Please help me get a research topic that considers the following specific, measurable, attainable, realistic,time- based in need of it ugently

Reply

minecraft mike
October 2, 2019 at 6:44 PM

Dang Shona straight throwing fact making all ya'll look dumb. This article straight fyreeeeee.

Reply

ThabetAL Masri MD
September 30, 2019 at 11:44 AM

thanks for your explanation it really made doing research more feasible and easier than before ...thanks a lot.

Reply

H
July 4, 2019 at 7:19 PM

Whaaau you are fire and you explain very well for a dummy research student like me.

Thanks Again.

Reply

Kofi
June 4, 2019 at 1:47 PM

Very educative. Am enjoying it.

Reply

Abigail
February 16, 2020 at 7:09 PM

You've been of much help thanks a lot

Reply

kastro Eden
May 4, 2019 at 11:52 PM

how can l prepare research questionnaire for assessing impacts of some changes?

Reply

dinga
May 3, 2019 at 4:10 PM

What kind of questions can be asked on a research on youth - led agribusiness interventions on creating employment for youth

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