Defining your research question is a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you have focused your interest enough to be able to state precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”
Going through this process can be the hardest part of doing research, but once you have a question that is realistically scoped (not too broad, not too narrow) it will guide the rest of your work.
The Process of Narrowing a Topic
ACTIVITY: Which Topic is Narrower?
Now it’s your turn. Practice thinking about narrower topics with these 3 examples. Click the arrow to show the next question.
TIP: Use Some of the 5 W’s to Help Narrow Your Topic to a Searchable Question
Your assignment is to write on the topic of higher education. You decide you want to write about the high cost of tuition, but that is still too broad.
Start by asking some or all of the following questions.
|Question||More Specific Focus|
|Who?||First year students, mature students, part-time students|
|What?||Graduation rates, degree completion, attrition, dropout|
|When?||Last 10 years|
|Why or how?||Financial burden, employment, student debt|
From asking these questions, you might come up with a research question like this:
“How does the high cost of tuition impact the degree completion of mature college students?”