Developing Your Research Question

Because of all their influence, you might worry that research questions are very difficult to develop. Sometimes it can seem that way. But we’ll help you get the hang of it and, luckily, none of us has to come up with perfect ones right off. It’s more like doing a rough draft and then improving it. That’s why we talk about developing research questions instead of just writing them.

Steps for Developing a Research Question

The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.

Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).

Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.

Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.

Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.

Step 5: Change that question you’re interested in so that it is more focused.

Writing a Research Question from Cluny Library


Once you know the steps and their order, only three skills are involved in developing a research question:

  • Imagining narrower topics about a larger one,
  • Thinking of questions that stem from a narrow topic, and
  • Focusing questions to eliminate their vagueness.

Every time you use these skills, it’s important to evaluate what you have produced—that’s just part of the process of turning rough drafts into more finished products.

Start with a narrow topic, think of questions, and then focus those questions.
Three steps for developing a research question
How to Focus Questions

The research questions below are not focused enough. Read the original question and use the question prompts to think about how you would make them more specific.

Question 1: Why have most electric car company start-ups failed?

  • Which companies are we talking about? Worldwide or in a particular country?

Question 2: How do crab apple trees develop buds?

  • There are several kinds of crab apples. Should we talk only about one kind? Does it matter where the crab apple tree lives?

Question 3: How has NASA helped America?

  • NASA has had many projects. Should we focus on one project they completed? Or projects during a particular time period?


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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