Research Question – How to-Guide | Definition & Examples

Research Question

Definition: Research Question

The research question states the aim of a paper in form of a question. The purpose of writing the paper is to provide an answer to the research question. No article/paper can cover all aspects of a broad topic.

You must select a more specific aspect that has the potential to yield significant results as part of the topic and then find a connection to your Thesis Statement.

What is a Research Question?

The research question lies at the heart of every piece of academic writing. The research question determines the sources to be quoted, how to structure the argument, and what a paper aims at.

The research question narrows down the topic and makes sure that the paper has a common thread. Moreover, the research question gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect from the paper.

You cannot start writing without having a research question in mind. It is easiest to think of a research question as a Wh-question. Finding an answer to the research question you formulate is your personal contribution. You must state your research question right at the beginning, as part of the introduction.

Also useful: What is plagiarism?

The aim of a research question

“The research question is also the question why you should delight the world with another pile of printed paper” (cf. Winter 2004: 28).

A bachelor’s or master’s thesis is not something you write just for the sake of writing something. The aim is to create new scientific knowledge or to test and newly interpret existing theories. To achieve this aim, a thorough literature research is necessary to find an under-researched topic having new aspects you can focus on – a gap in scientific literature, so to speak.

To be even more precise: you can pose a very specific research question that nobody has asked before.

Bear in mind: You have to make it clear why a particular research question is important. The best thing to do is to focus on an unresolved problem. Solving this problem is the aim of your paper. Problems are a great motivation for new research as they give a paper direction and meaning (cf. Kruse 2007: 129).

Esselborn-Krumbiegel says it is essential to understand what is required of every academic piece of writing, namely finding an answer to an open question (cf. 2002: 60). First, you have to find a topic and then formulate a research question derived from said topic. The topic as such will only be dealt with in terms of your specific research question (cf. Franck & Stary 2009: 167).

Please note: Topic and research question are closely related. However, the topic is only the titleof your paper, since new knowledge can only be created by answering the research question (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 24). The research question draws on a specific aspect of the topic and ensures that the paper has clear focus (cf. Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 3).

How to write a research question: Examples

General example for creating a research question

The following diagram depicts how to proceed from a broad topic to a precise research question.

Research Question Example Write

(cf. Chad Flinn, n.d., https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0054/what-makes-a-good-research-question/. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019)

Concrete example using the topic of media violence

The following example shows how to derive a detailed research question from the topic “Media Violence”:

Formulate Research Question

(cf. Lewis A. Jackson Library, n.d., http://indwes.libguides.com/c.php?g=71141&p=458447. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019)

Example: How the topic, problem, research question, and aim of the paper are interrelated

TopicThe spread of non-native plants in Switzerland
ProblemThe paper argues that the spread of non-native plants in Switzerland is problematic. In particular, Ambrosia artemisiifolia will be looked at. It has spread massively in the last 30 years and is on the blacklist of plants whose spread must be contained.
Research QuestionHas the spread of Ambrosia artemisiifolia in three different places in Switzerland increased since the last study conducted 6 years ago, and, if so, to what extent?
AimThe aim is to provide data as the basis for deciding whether active intervention is needed.

Examples: Deriving a research question from a topic

Research Question Examples

(cf. Lamar Memorial Library, n.d., https://library.maryvillecollege.edu/c.php?g=616334&p=4320157. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019)

Dos and Don’ts: How to write a good research question

Take your time when formulating your research question – it will definitely pay off! Be careful not to pose a research question that is ambiguous. People might wonder if you actually know what you want to work on and which research question you are setting out to answer (cf. Kornmeier 2013: 71).

Tip: Talk to your supervisor about your topic and your research question and make sure she/he approves of it!

The following list details Dos and Don’ts of writing a good research question to make sure you know what to include and what to avoid when formulating your research question (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 24; Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 47).

DO WRITEDON'T WRITE
✓ precise and narrow research questions✘ a research question based on false assumptions
✓ unbiased research questions✘ pseudo-questions (claims/statements in disguise)
✓ research questions relevant to your field of study✘ research questions containing inappropriate wording or concepts
✓ currently researchable research questions, i.e. that can be answered by methods available to students✘ a research question that is too general or too demanding
✘ illogical research questions

Examples of good and bad research questions

The Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (CIRT) suggests how to transform a bad research question into a good research questions using the following examples:

Too narrow: What is the childhood obesity rate in Phoenix, AZ?
This is too narrow because it can be answered with a simple statistic. Typically, questions that can be answered with a yes or a no should also be avoided.
Less narrow: How does parental education level impact childhood obesity rates in Phoenix, AZ?
This question demonstrates the correct amount of specificity and the results would provide an opportunity for an argument to be formed.
Unfocused and too broad: What are the effects of childhood obesity in the United States?
This question is so broad that research methodology would be very difficult. Also, the question is too broad to be discussed in a typical research paper.
More focused: How does childhood obesity correlate with academic performance in elementary school children?
This question has a very clear focus for which data can be collected, analyzed, and discussed.
Too objective: How much time do young children spend doing physical activity per day?
This question may allow the researcher to collect data but does not lend itself to collecting data that can be used to create a valid argument because the data is just factual information.
More Subjective: What is the relationship between physical activity levels and childhood obesity?
This is a more subjective question that may lead to the formation of an argument based on the results and analysis of the data.
Too simple: How are school systems addressing childhood obesity?
This information can be obtained without the need to collect unique data. The question could be answered with a simple online search and does not provide an opportunity for analysis.
More Complex: What are the effects of intervention programs in elementary schools on the rate of childhood obesity among 3rd to 6th grade students?
This question is more complex and requires both investigation and evaluation which will lead the research to form an argument that may be discussed.

(cf. CIRT, n.d., https://cirt.gcu.edu/research/developmentresources/tutorials/question. Last accessed 19th Feb 2019)

How to formulate a research question: Finding the right words

The easiest way to formulate a research question is to turn your whole bachelor’s thesis into one question. This will help to define the aim of your bachelor’s thesis (cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 46). You can make choices concerning the literature, the structure and the content, as well as the study design, only if you have a very clear idea of what you want to write about (cf. Kornmeier 2013: 56).

Please note: The research question must be unique to ensure that no other paper addresses the very same question (making your results a novelty rather than a repetition of previous research in that area). Moreover, it is best to think of the research question as a Wh-question (What? Why? etc.) (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 24).

The research question can also be formulated as an interrogative sentence, e.g. “The question this paper sets out to answer is…” or “This paper deals with the following question:…” (cf. Kruse 2010: 80). A question mark signals to the reader that there is an unresolved problem and your work offers a solution.

A good research question is precise and narrow. Andermann, Drees & Grätz say it is a cardinal error if an author thinks that everything that s/he has read about a topic must go into the paper. In a figurative sense, starting with Adam and Eve and the original sin, as well as trying to reinvent the wheel, are major mistakes for prospective scientists (cf. 2006: 33).

Bear in mind: Kruse (cf. 2010) shows how problem, research question, and aim are separate things. The problem relates to the relevance of the topic and is a larger unit of meaning (political, scientific, ethical, vocational problems, etc.). You can never write about everything (that is, the whole problem), but only about one aspect of the problem – i.e., the research question. It is the aim of your paper to introduce and apply theories, test new methods, interpret sources, etc. (cf. 2010: 80).

Sample research questions and different research question types

Below you will find an overview of different types of research questions, including sample research questions.

Type of QuestionExplanationSample research questions
DescriptionDescribe a state: What’s the case?
What does reality look like? (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 25)
What is teacher training at university XYZ like?
(cf. Samac, Prenner, & Schwetz 2009: 49)
ExplanationUnderstanding interrelationships:
Cause-effect relationship: What are the consequences of an action?
(cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 49)
Why do companies differ in terms of staff
development?

Why hasn’t labor mobility in the EU changed
since 1990?
(cf. Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 4)
CreationMeasures to solve practical problems:
Which measures are useful to solve a particular problem?
(cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 25)
How can we ensure population balance in the future?

What strategies can companies use to be successful
in the Chinese market?
(cf. Kornmeier 2013: 61)
OutlookPredict future events and possible consequences:
What will happen in the future? What kind of changes are to be expected?
(cf. Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 4)
How will staff development in a particular
line of business change over time?

How will labor mobility in the EU change in the next
5 years? (cf. Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 4)
Criticism/EvaluationCriticizing, suggestions for improvement:
How can one condition be assessed in the light of specific criteria?
(cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 49)
How can pupil-centered teaching in English be assessed
in the light of formal performance dimensions?

Are teachers more satisfied after having developed
school profiles?
(cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 49)
UtopiaSpeculating; Sense/ethics from a
scientific point of view when it
comes to long-term predictions or developments:

How will the world of tomorrow look like?
(cf. Kornmeier 2013: 61)
How will old and young people live together in
50 years?

What influence will countries like the BRIC-States
(Brazil, Russia, India, China) have on the global
economy in 50 years? (cf. Kornmeier 2013: 61)

In addition to developing the main research question, you have to be clear about the connection of your sub-research questions. Moreover, you have to figure out what type of research question you want to deal with. Otherwise, you run the risk of including everything you find out about a term or a statement during your literature research even if the latter play only a minor role in your research question (cf. Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 3-4).

Research question vs. title

TitleResearch question
Differences between fathers with
various migration backgrounds in
larger cities in their subjective
constructions of paternal role in
raising toddlers
This paper deals with ideas of the paternal role
fathers in larger cities have when it comes to raising
toddlers. The research question reads as follows:
What differences in paternal role definition and
identity can be detected between fathers from
different cultural backgrounds?

(cf. Kruse 2007: 128)

The research question: Where it belongs

The research question determines the contents and the methods used in your bachelor’s and master’s thesis. Therefore, the research question must be introduced at the very beginning of your work. Moreover, the sole purpose of your paper is to answer the research question, so it is essential that the reader understands your research question. So you need to know: How to write an introduction

Tip: When introducing the research question, you might want to use the personal pronoun “I”. Even though you should not use “I” in the paper as such (except in the acknowledgements), it is fine to include “I” in your research question. For example, your research question could read “In this paper, I would like to show…” or “In this paper, I will deal with…”. You are not talking about your personal opinion (I think… To my mind…) (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 147), rather the opposite is true: you are introducing a new aspect of a topic worth dealing with. Thus, the personal pronoun “I” can best be used in the research question for emphasis.

In your introduction, you should briefly introduce the topic and its relevance. Right after this, you have to pose your research question and highlight how it is part of a larger topic (cf. Oertner, St. John, & Thelen 2014: 31). You can split the research question into sub research questions, which should reflect in the structure of your paper. This means you are answering a bigger research question successively (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 24; Esselborn-Krumbiegel 2002: 64).

After all, longer papers like a master’s thesis do not consist of one big chapter only. Rather, several chapters building on each other are needed to adequately answer the research question (state of research, methods, empirical data collection, data analysis, etc.). Don’t forget to answer the research question in your thesis statement.

In summary

  • The research question is central to every bachelor’s and master’s thesis. It determines the content, the structure, and the aim of an academic paper — i.e., finding an answer to the research question.
  • The research question is closely related to the topic and the title of the paper. You will never be able to deal with all aspects of a topic. The research question is the narrowed down version that shows which particular aspect you want to focus on in your thesis/paper.
  • The research question is best phrased as a Wh-question and must address a problem/an aspect that is new (no other paper has dealt with this issue/looked at this issue from the same angle).
  • It is not your task to reinvent the wheel. The research question narrows down the topic and, thus, excludes aspects that are not essential to the research question.
  • Answering your research question is your personal contribution to science and represents newly generated knowledge.
  • The research question is part of the introduction, right after a brief introduction of the topic.
  • There are different types of research questions: descriptive, explanatory, creative, critical/evaluative, and utopic.
  • It is important to ensure that a research question is never vague or biased. It pays off to take enough time to formulate a research question properly. Moreover, a research question must be researchable and relevant for the field of study.

References

Andermann, Ulrich, Martin Drees & Frank Götz. 2006. Wie verfasst man wissenschaftliche Arbeiten? 3rd Ed. Mannheim: Dudenverlag.

Bänsch, Axel & Dorothea Alewell. 2013. Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten. 11th Ed. Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag.

CIRT. “Writing a Good Research Question”, in: CIRT. https://cirt.gcu.edu/research/developmentresources/tutorials/question. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019.

Esselborn-Krumbiegel, Helga. 2002. Von der Idee zum Text – Eine Anleitung zum wissenschaftlichen Schreiben. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Flinn, Chad. “What makes a good research question”, in: Chad Flinn. https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0054/what-makes-a-good-research-question/. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019.

Franck, Norbert & Joachim Stary. 2009. Die Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens. 15th Ed. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Karmasin, Matthias & Rainer Ribing. 2014. Die Gestaltung wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten. 8th Ed. Vienna: Facultas.

Kruse, Otto. 2007. Keine Angst vor dem leeren Blatt – Ohne Schreibblockaden durchs Studium. 12th Ed. Frankfurt: Campus.

Kruse, Otto. 2010. Lesen und Schreiben – Der richtige Umgang mit Texten im Studium. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft.

Kornmeier, Martin. 2013. Wissenschaftlich schreiben leicht gemacht – für Bachelor, Master und Dissertation. 6th Ed. Bern: Haupt.

Lamar Memorial Library. “Creating a Research Question”, in: Lamar Memorial Library. https://library.maryvillecollege.edu/c.php?g=616334&p=4320157. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019.

Lewis A. Jackson Library. “Forming a Research Question”, in: Lewis A. Jackson Library. http://indwes.libguides.com/c.php?g=71141&p=458447. Last accessed 26th Mar 2019.

Oertner, Monika, Illona St. John & Gabriele Thelen. 2014. Wissenschaftlich Schreiben – Ein Praxisbuch für Schreibtrainer und Studierende. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink.

Rossig, Wolfram E. & Joachim Prätsch. 2005. Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten. 5th Ed. Weyhe: PRINT-TEC.

Samac, Klaus, Monika Prenner & Herbert Schwetz. 2009. Die Bachelorarbeit an Universität und Fachhochschule. Vienna: Facultas.

Winter, Wolfgang. 2005. Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten schreiben. 2nd Ed. Frankfurt: Redline Wirtschaft.

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