Helping Students Build Better Research Questions

Asking a good, researchable question – and preparing oneself for the fact that that question will likely change over time – are critical lessons for new researchers. Too often, as more experienced scholars, we forget that devising a good (and flexible) question is an activity that our students must practice regularly, with our feedback.

We have devised several ways for you and your students to approach the research question. Please see any one of these tutorials:

In a discipline:
One assignment that helps students choose topics that are current and relevant to the discipline is a “Trends and Issues” assignment. For example, you might assign students to look at several recent issues of significant journals in the field (give a list) and come in to class ready to discuss an article they found interesting. From that discussion, the class can identify several trends and issues important to the field at the moment that they can refine into a research paper that adds to the conversation on the topic. This type of assignment could also be a formal paper, identifying and analyzing a particular trend or issue in the research in the field, or a presentation.

In English 120:
Start with having students choose topics related to their community, however they define it. It could be their geographic community, their religious community, or any other communities they identify with. They might think about their community as college students.

All courses:
Avoid letting students pick topics that are too broad, general, or have nothing new to say. Examples of these might be: abortion, the death penalty, gun control, euthanasia, violence in video games, steroid abuse, the SATs, the “obesity epidemic,” and marriage equality. These topics also lead to more simplistic research questions or pro/con arguments.

Read an article (such as Turkle’s “Can you hear me now”) and ask them to come up with a few research questions on that topic. Look at how they could narrow each. (For more on this assignment, see Using a Reading to Choose a Research Topic.)

Don’t be afraid to be overly prescriptive (e.g. “All students must address some aspect of the Fourth Amendment”) and then work with students to develop their own unique question on that issue. Alternately, you can give students a wide range of subjects to look at, but recommend a single lens (or two) with which they might approach their subjects.

Finally, good questions are important to not only research but also to critical thinking. Consider assignments throughout the semester where students ask (researchable) questions of the materials that they are reading in class.

For more, see Librarians' tips on good research assignments.

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Research Toolkit by Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.