Part 1 of 3 in the Research Process series by Ryan D. Smith, CAPS Assistant Coordinator of Writing & Language
If you’ve seen the film I, Robot (2004), you may remember several scenes that are similar to the typical conversation students have with their professors while discussing the topics for their term papers. Throughout his investigation, Det. Spooner consults a hologram of the late Dr. Lanning, who repeatedly responds to his questions with the unhelpful phrase: “I’m sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” As Det. Spooner starts asking more relevant questions, the hologram becomes more cooperative, until he finally arrives at the question which will send his investigation in the right direction—to which the hologram responds, “That, detective, is the right question.”
As frustrating as it can be when our professors want us to keep narrowing our research topics further, they have a valid point: If we want to conduct quality research, we must ask the right questions.
Asking the right questions will not only give you a stronger research paper, but it will also direct your investigation toward a more profitable source. It will show you what areas to investigate, narrow down the scope of your research, and it will also help you to remain objective throughout your inquiry.
So what makes a good research question?
To begin, a strong research question must be informed. It would be little use writing a research paper answering a question that has already been answered. It would be even worse writing a paper based on an irrelevant question. The first step to developing a research question, then, is to know something about your topic. It is tempting, of course, to start right away pulling articles from Jstor and Google Scholar, but without an informed research question, searching for resources can waste a substantial amount of time. Instead, as Booth et al (2008) suggest, start out with some light research. Look up your topic on Google. Read the Wikipedia page. Find other introductory websites that can give you an overview of your topic, without going too much in depth. The purpose of this is to find potential areas of interest, to see generally what information already exists. Sources that may provide some deeper information include review articles, which are peer reviewed and summarize the research within a subfield. These will provide more specialized information than encyclopedia articles or blogs, so this makes a good second step to gathering background information.
Secondly, a strong research question must be transparent. It acknowledges what you know, and what you don’t know, about your topic. Once you have read up a bit on your topic, it is time to do some free-writing. Write everything you know about your topic. Write as if you are explaining it to a ten-year-old. The idea, as Parrish (2016) points out, is to find out two very important things: what you know already, and what you still need to study further. By simplifying your explanation to something a ten-year-old could understand, you are forcing yourself to build a stronger understanding of your topic by avoiding the jargon-based explanations you’re used to.
Lastly, a strong research question must be worthwhile. It can easily fill a 15-page paper. It reveals the thought and care the researcher has put into crafting their inquiry, and provides a framework for both a detailed investigation and a complex answer. Read over what you’ve just written about your topic, and start asking questions. Choose a detail that you find particularly interesting, and start thinking about that detail in more depth. Or pay attention to one of the areas that you had more trouble writing about. Ask yourself what you need to know about that area in order to explain it more thoroughly. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy (illustrated below) to develop a higher level question. The higher the level of your research question, the deeper you will be able to go in your research.
Unless you are Det. Spooner, your research question might not lead to quelling the next robot uprising. But it should be able to address a relevant issue that others will be interested in reading about as well. Finding a research question with relevance will not only motivate you to press on through your research, but it may also convince others to value your work, or even invest in it. So remember, whether you are researching Shakespearean puns, structural design, or the three laws of robotics, you must ask the right questions.
Ryan D. Smith is the Assistant Coordinator of the Writing & Language Program at CAPS, and an M.A. Candidate in the Department of Linguistics. He spends his weekends climbing mountains and advocating for robotic rights.
Booth, Wayne C.; Colomb, Gregory G.; and Williams, Joseph M. 2008. The Craft of Research, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cornwell, Julia. “Bloom’s Taxonomy: Encouraging Higher Cognitive Thinking in Primary School Classrooms,” Successful Teaching (blog), March 23, 2011 (6:46 a.m.). https://juliaec.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/blooms-taxonomy-encouraging-higher-cognitive-thinking-in-primary-school-classrooms/