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Research Skills

Information to help students find, evaluate, reference, and write for their assignments

Developing a research question

If you are required to find a research topic yourself, it can be hard to know where to begin. Use the quick links below to guide you through formulating a research question and what a good research question should look like.

Quick links

A good research question will:

Have a clear meaning. The writer should know immediately what the question is asking them to do.

 Have suitable scope. If your scope is too broad, you will have too much to cover and won't be able answer your question effectively. However, if your scope is too narrow, you won't have enough to write about and it will be hard to provide a convincing thesis or argument.

 Be manageable to answer. If it is too difficult to answer, you may struggle to stick to your word count, or complete the assignment within the required timeframe. However, a question that is too easy to answer will not allow you to form a solid and original argument.

 Have information available on the topic. A research question must be researchable. You should be able to find adequate academic sources that cover the topic, otherwise you are really going to struggle to answer your question.

Allow you to formulate an argument. You should be providing analysis, not merely reporting back on a topic or describing it.

Formulating a research question

 Check you understand your assignment. You should know the purpose: Is it to propose and defend a theory? Is it to analyse gaps in existing research? Is it to explore and test an existing theory or research data?

If you are not sure, talk to your tutor. It is really important that before you begin, you know exactly what is being asked of you.

 Choose a topic. You may have been given a list of topics to choose from, or a subject area from which to choose your own, original topic. Make sure you choose a topic that interests you. Finding time and motivation to carry out the research will be easier if you are invested in something.

 Do prior research. You need to be confident that you will find information on your topic before you commit to it. Check your scope isn't too narrow, and that what you want to explore has existing literature on it. If it's hard to find information on your topic from academic sources, you will either need to find a new topic or change the area you want to focus on.

You do not need to do in-depth reading at this stage. You just need to get an idea of what's out there. Make sure you pay attention to publication date when you do this; it is advisable to use recent research, depending on the context of your topic. Check if your assignment stipulates a publication date range.

 Find a research focus. Now you know what's out there, you should be able to narrow your topic. Focus on one issue within the larger topic. You'll be able to provide a meatier argument on one subtopic, than if you attempt to examine a handful.

You could look at issues that affect:

  • a group of people: an ethnic group, a geographic group, an organisation, a particular demographic

You could brainstorm:

  • issues, debates, or controversy within your main topic, subtopics of your main topic, aspects of your main topic that have gauged your interest.
Broad topic Restricted topic Narrowed topic Research question 
Climate change Sea level rise Sea incursion in urban areas How might sea level rise affect population displacement?
Covid19 Vaccination  High vaccination rates amongst Pasifika What factors have influenced a high vaccination rate in the Pasifika community?
Social media Facebook Algorithms feeding targeted information How does the 'echo chamber' effect of Facebook's algorithms affect political polling? 

 Write your question. Use the above guidelines for constructing an effective research question.

Testing your topic

It is really important that you are confident you will find sufficient and appropriate resources before you commit to a research topic. Quite often students find that the scope of their topic is too narrow and it is very hard to find sources, or it is too broad and the number of sources is overwhelming.

By doing prior research, you should be able to establish if your topic is going to be easy to research. The prior research doesn't need to take long, but it is crucial to making your life easier after you've decided on a topic.

Remember, a topic is not set in stone. You can tweak it as you research. Your sources may point you in a new direction you hadn't considered before but are really interested in. Or you may have to tweak it because you can't find enough sources, or there are too many.

This short video below from North Carolina State University Library clearly explains the topic testing process:

libnscu. (2014, May 2). Picking your topic IS research! [Video]. YouTube. 3.0 BY-NC-SA

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