Talking About Research Questions: Advice for Faculty

In addition to the explanation for students on Creating a Research Question in the Research Toolkit, K College faculty share their explanations of the Research Question below.  

Excerpt: Helping Students Develop Research Questions by Martin Goffeney, from HeinOnline Blog

Have students work together in groups to begin developing questions by breaking their topic down into different ideas, subtopics, historical events, and facts. A good way to start this process is to have students make two different lists in their groups: a list of stuff they do know about their topic, and a list of stuff they do not know about their topic. From there, have students begin to transform their list of things they don’t know into question form. Encourage students to articulate questions that begin with “how,” “why,” and “what if” and to avoid questions that are easily answered with “yes” or “no.”

One challenge that students often encounter at early stages of research is when they choose a topic that is too broadly defined, such as “gun control” or “the obesity epidemic.” For example, I have often encountered students who begin with a research question such as “Should there be gun control?” This sort of “yes/no” question lends itself to a simplistic “pro/con” style of argument that has the effect of constraining research. Instead, I suggest that students try to come up with “how” and “what if” questions. A far better research question would be something like: “How could gun control legislation be implemented?” or “What would be the impact on violent crime rates if an assault weapons ban were implemented?”

Have students evaluate the effectiveness of their research questions using the following diagnostic questions:

  • Can your question be answered with a simple yes/no? If so, it is probably not focused and specific enough.
  • Could your question conceivably be answered (proved or disproved) using evidence?
  • Is there consensus on this issue already? (If so, it might not be worth researching!)

Read the full article here

J. Einspahr: How to construct a research question:  

A good research question is general enough that ample source material can be found to answer the question, but it is also specific and focused enough that it can be answered fully.  In general, avoid yes/no questions (boring) and “why” questions (often unanswerable).  “How” and “what” questions are usually more manageable and specific.  Finally, a good research question should be interesting.  If the question leaves you asking “so what?” or “who cares?” it is probably not worth answering.  

L. Dugas – Constructing a research question:  

Moving from topic to research questions -   

Using the basic knowledge you have gained about your topic from your reading assignment, begin developing a research question related to this topic.  Try to move beyond simple yes/no or factual questions.  In order to do so, you will probably need to complete some further research.    

Research questions can either be empirical or normative in nature.  The goal of empirical analysis is explanation.  In our case, you would be trying to explain a given linguistic situation in a country or trying to explain the language policy or the attitudes towards a certain language or languages in a particular country.  In order to explain the situation or policy, you should seek to identify in a coherent fashion the causes of this situation or policy. (Empirical questions can almost always be formulated as “why” questions).    

The goal of normative analysis is to arrive at a judgment regarding a given language policy.   

While empirical analysis is grounded in examination and study of concrete reality, normative analysis is grounded largely in philosophical thought and/or pre-existing personal values.    

You need to design a research question related to the linguistic situation and/or the language planning or policy in the country that you have chosen.  Here are some examples:  

“Why are there so few speakers of Native American languages in the United States?”    
(an empirical question)  

“Why is English not the official language of the United States?”  (an empirical question)  

“Why is Cantonese considered a dialect of Chinese and not a separate language?” (an empirical question)  

“Should English be the only official language of the United States?”  (a normative question)  

“Should the U.S. government support efforts of American Indian tribes to teach their native language in public schools?”  (a normative question)  

“Should Canada maintain French as an official language?” (a normative question)  

“Should the Bolivian government support bilingual education in indigenous communities?”   
(a normative question)  

D. Seuss – Research Question examples:  

A research question is a lot like a thesis statement in that it should be clear, specific, and arguable.   

Like a scientific hypothesis, it will provide a frame for your continued research. A research question will probably evolve the more you learn about your subject, just as thesis statements often can be refined as you write your paper and consider your evidence.   

As with thesis statements, a research question must ultimately pass the so-what test. It should not be a truism, nor should the question’s answer be obvious.   

An example:  

Weak – Who is Coyote in Native American mythology?  

Stronger – How does Coyote function in Native American cultures of the Southwest?  

Strongest – Does Coyote’s presence as a trickster figure in contemporary Navajo poetry allow writers  to usurp, comment upon, or transgress upon dominant white culture?