Developing a Research Question
- The types of questions we ask ourselves during research
- What a research question is
- How to craft a good research question
Hello! My name is Jen Hoyer, and I am an Educating Librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History.
Today we are going to talk about how to craft a good research question. We will discuss:
- The types of questions we ask when we do research
- What a research question is, and the research question’s place within the research process
- How to craft a strong research question
- How our research question can evolve over time, and how it will guide our work.
The process of crafting a research question is critical for in-depth research projects such as essays or presentations. Crafting a research question relies on having some prior knowledge about a topic. When you sit down to write a research question, you should have already decided a research topic and begun some initial research, perhaps by examining some sources related to your topic and taking some notes.
The act of crafting a research question is an opportunity to connect personally with a topic. While the same research topic may be assigned to a large group of people, making a research question invites us to identify areas of our topic that are interesting to us personally, and to create a research question that will allow us to explore these areas more deeply.
Before we dive into talking about research questions, I want to invite us to think about the kinds of questions we ask when we do research. For our examples today, I will be looking at two primary source documents from the Center for Brooklyn History at Brooklyn Public Library.
The first document is a Pupil’s Record from 1919. When I look closely at this source, I can see the name Mabel Schoennmann written at the top. I see a note in red ink in the bottom right, that she graduated in 1919. I see small writing in squares to indicate her attendance.
If I flip the source over to look at the back, I see a Physical Record; this marks any health issues she had, and when these occurred during her academic career.
The second document is Judy Wagman’s report card. It indicates her attendance; the teacher’s judgement of her personality traits; and her marks in a variety of subjects.
I’m interested in learning more about these documents, so I might sit down now to brainstorm some questions based on what I have looked at. I could ask:
- When did Mabel Schoenmann graduate?
- What factors may have contributed to girls’ education in New York City?
- What was the impact of education on girls in early 20th century New York City?
Let’s think together: which of these questions could we respond to by looking at a single source? Which question would require us to construct a response using both sources? Which question is not possible to answer with these sources?
On reflection, I can see that:
- Mabel Schoenmann graduated in 1919, and we can answer this question by looking at a single source.
- Attendance, health, and personality may all have contributed to both Mabel and Judy’s education, and we can construct this response by looking at both sources.
- We can’t see the impact of education on girls in early 20th century New York City by looking at only these two sources; we will need to examine a variety of sources.
Let’s talk now about the types of questions we ask when doing research.
Guiding Questions are very simple. They might have a yes / no answer. They often start with a question stem like who, what, when, where, or why. They always end with an answer. We can usually answer a guiding question by looking at one source. In our introduction activity, the first question is a guiding question.
We were able to answer the question “when did Mabel Schoenmann graduate” by looking at a single source to find the response: 1919.
You might be familiar with hearing about this kind of question referred to as a “closed” question, or a “thin” question.
An Essential Question makes us think more. We will have to search for the answer, and we may have to analyze one or more sources in order to craft a response. An essential question needs at least one full sentence for an answer, and we will often need more sentences in order to explain our answer. A yes / no answer will not work for an essential question.
Our question of what factors contributed to girls’ education in New York City in the early 1900s can be answered by looking at both of our sources and analyzing the details we see in order to craft a longer response: we can see that attendance, health, and personality may all have impacted learning.
You might be familiar with hearing about this kind of question referred to as “open” or “thick.”
A Research Question takes us beyond the sources we have. Our final question from the introduction, “What was the impact of education on girls in early 20th century New York City?,” cannot be answered by only looking at these two sources, and provides us with a good example of a research question.
A research question is the overarching question that guides our entire project. We will only have one main research question, although it may lead us to ask many other questions.
A research question is clear, focused, and arguable. Clear means that others can easily understand it. Focused means that the scope of our question is appropriate: it is not asking us to look at something too specific, or not specific enough. Arguable means that there are multiple possible answers and opinions about our question, and we could debate the responses.
“What was the impact of education on girls in early 20th century New York City?” is clear because it is written in a way that is easy for us to understand and explain to others. This question is focused because it looks at specific aspects of a topic (education): girls, in New York City (location), in the early 20th century (time period). The question is arguable because there could be many answers and opinions; different people might argue that different impacts were more or less important.
Let’s look at some examples of questions that don’t work well as research questions:
“Did Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers?” is not a good research question, because it is not arguable. There is only one correct answer to this question.
“Why is visiting historic places helpful?” is not a good research question because it is not focused; we don’t know what historic places the question refers to. This question is also unclear, because the word “helpful” is very vague. Do we want to know how historic places help with education? With environmental issues? With entertaining young children? When we write research questions, the words we choose are important because they will help guide our research.
When we write our own research questions, we should keep in mind that this is an opportunity to make our research personal to us. For example: if our entire class is studying education, but I really love cooking, I might decide to write a research question focused on the history or impact of home economics and cooking classes within public schools in my region. If one of my colleagues is interested in architecture, their research question might examine how and why the construction of schools has changed over time.
To start writing my question, I should brainstorm some things I want to know about my topic. I’m going to think back to the two sources we started with.
I might ask:
- What classes did New York City students take in 1919?
- How many schools were in New York City in 1919?
- Did girls and boys attend classes together in the early 20th century?
- How did girls’ school attendance increase or decrease during the 20th century?
Now that I’ve thought of some of the things I would like to know, I should choose one question and transform it into a research question.
Remember: my goal is to craft a research question that is clear, focused, and arguable.
We have some words that we often use when we transform questions into research questions. They are: cause, effect, compare, impact, change, and influence.
I’m going to choose the question, “How did girls’ school attendance increase or decrease during the 20th century?” I can see that this isn’t an arguable question. It’s also not very focused; what country or city do I want to know about?
To fix my question, I’ll ask: How did changes in girls’ school attendance in New York City during the 20th century impact their opportunities in life?
My question is now a little more focused -- I’ve specified that I’m interested only in New York City. I’ve also made it arguable, by asking about how it impacted their opportunities; I may find evidence to support an argument that it had positive benefits for their participation in the workforce, but another researcher might focus on evidence to support an argument that increases in girls’ attendance did not have the same benefits that their male peers saw.
Once I’ve crafted a research question, it can be really helpful to get feedback from a friend or colleague. They might point out that my question is not as clear as I thought, or that my focus seems unrealistic. I should refine my research question as needed.
- The process of crafting a research question helps us plan our research. Now that I have a research question, what information will I need to find in order to construct a response? For example: if my research question is “How did changes in girls’ school attendance in New York City during the 20th century impact their opportunities in life?” I should look for information such as:
- Girls’ school attendance numbers in New York City in the 20th century
- Changes in the rate of women’s participation in the workforce in New York City in the 20th century
- Changes in the types of jobs available to women in New York City in the 20th century
- Changes in the amount of money women earned in New York City in the 20th century
When we write a research question, we should remember that it is not set in stone. As I wrote out my list of information I should look for in order to answer my research question, I realized that my question is not as focused as I thought. It is asking me to look for a lot of very broad information!
I might choose to focus my question on a specific time period: How did changes in girls’ school attendance in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s impact their opportunities in life?
I might also decide to clarify my question, because “opportunities in life” is a little vague and requires me to look for a lot of types of information. I can clarify my question by asking: How did changes in girls’ school attendance in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s impact the jobs they were prepared for in the 1940s and 1950s?
Now I can use my question again to plan my research. In order to answer this question, I should look for:
- Girls’ school attendance in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, as compared with previous decades
- Jobs that women were eligible for in the 1940s and 1950s, which may not have been available to them previously
- Factors aside from education that may have helped women gain these jobs in the 1940s and 1950s
Now I have a great research question. I also have a great plan for getting started on my research!
My question may continue to evolve as I do more research; I might discover information that will help me better focus my question in order to clearly construct an evidence-based response. Or, I might discover that there is not enough information available to answer my question; I can then broaden the scope in order to make sure my research question is setting me up for success.
Thank you for diving into research questions with me! Today we learned about the types of questions we ask when we do research; what a research question is, and the research question’s place within the research process; how to craft a strong research question; and how our research questions can evolve over time and can guide our work.