19 Finding a Research Question

Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Shane Abrams
Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly

We live in an age of immediate answers. Although we have not achieved parity in access to technology worldwide, information has never been easier to uncover. This is, of course, a double-edged sword: the proliferation of ideas due to the technological revolution enables new kinds of learning but also has fundamentally changed the way we think and interact.

One of my friends refers to his iPhone as the “Wonder Killer”: because he has such quick access to answers through the miniature computer he carries everywhere, the experience of sustained curiosity is now very rare in his life. All kinds of questions are easily answered by googling “Who was that guy in Back to the Future Part II?” or “Do spiders hibernate?” or by taking a brief crawl through Wikipedia: “How has globalization impacted Bhutan’s economy?” “What life experiences influenced Frida Kahlo’s painting?” But the answers to these questions, though easily discovered, paint a very one-dimensional portrait of human knowledge.

For scientists and writers alike, the spirit of curiosity motivates at once individual learning and also the growth and progress of our collective knowledge. Your innate ability to be curious puts you in the league of the most brilliant and prolific scholars—people who were driven by questions, seeking to interrogate the world around them.

In this section, I add my voice to the chorus of writing teachers whose rallying cry is a renewed investment in curiosity. Hopefully, you too will embrace inquisitive fascination by rejecting easy answers and using writing as a means of discovery.

Inquiry-Based Research

It’s possible that you’ve already written research papers by this point in your academic career. If your experience has been like mine, writing these papers went one of two ways:

  1. The teacher assigns a specific topic for you to research, and sometimes even a specific thesis for you to prove.
  2. The teacher provides more freedom, allowing students to choose a topic at their own discretion or from a set of options.

In both situations, my teacher expected me to figure out what I wanted to argue, then find research to back me up. I was expected to have a fully formed stance on an issue, then use my sources to explain and support that stance. Not until graduate school did I encounter inquiry-based research, which inverts this sequence.

Put simply, inquiry-based research refers to research and research writing that is motivated by curiosity rather than a teacher’s requirement.

A Comparison of Research Styles
Table 19.1 A chart comparing inquiry and non-inquiry-based research
Non-inquiry-based research Inquiry-based research
Your research begins with an answer and seeks out evidence that confirms that answer. Your research begins with a question, reviews all the evidence available, and then develops that answer.
For example, a murder occurs, and I get a bad vibe from the butler. I look for all the clues that confirm that the butler did it; assuming I find what I need, I can declare that the butler did it. For example, a murder occurs. I look for as many clues as I can, then determine the most likely culprit based on that evidence.

It’s quite possible that the butler did do it, and both logical processes might lead me to the same conclusion. However, an inquiry-based investigation allows more consideration for the possibility that the butler is innocent.

Consider the difference this can make: if research is about learning, then an inquiry-based perspective is essential. If you only seek out the ideas that agree with you, you will never learn.

Even in the event that the investigation yields the same answers, their differences are crucial. When we only look for answers that agree with our preexisting ideas, we are more likely to ignore other important ideas, voices, and possibilities. Most importantly, confirmation bias inhibits genuine learning, which relies on challenging, expanding, and complicating our current knowledge and world views.

Consequently, inquiry-based research is time-consuming and intensive: instead of only dealing with evidence that supports a certain answer or perspective, it requires the reasoner to encounter a great diversity of evidence and answers, which can be difficult to sift through.

This distinction has important implications for the kind of research and research writing for which this book advocates.

  • You don’t have to—shouldn’t, in fact—have a thesis set in stone before starting your thesis, but you must be tremendously flexible: be prepared to pivot, qualify, nuance, or entirely change your answer as you proceed.
  • In order to pursue your research question, you will need to encounter a lot of sources. Not all of the sources you encounter will make it into your paper, which is a new practice for some students. This is a time-consuming process, but it leads to more significant learning, more complex thinking, and more interesting and effective rhetoric.

Developing a Research Question

Finding a conversation that you’re excited about and genuinely interested in is the first and most important step. As you develop a topic, keep in mind that pursuing your curiosities and passions will make your research process less arduous, more relevant, and more pleasant. Such an approach will also naturally improve the quality of your writing: the interest you have for a topic will come across in the construction of your sentences and your willingness to pursue multiple lines of thought about a topic. An author’s boredom results in a boring paper, and an author’s enthusiasm translates to enthusiastic writing.

Depending on the parameters your teacher has set, your research topic might need to (1) present a specific viewpoint, (2) focus on a specific topic, or (3) focus on a certain theme or set of ideas. It’s also possible that your teacher will allow complete autonomy for one or all of your research assignments. Be sure you review any materials your instructor provides and ask clarifying questions to make sure your topic fits the guidelines of their assignment.

To generate ideas, identify areas of interest, then develop questions of all sizes and types. Eventually, you will zero in on a question or combination of questions as your path of inquiry.

What makes for a good research question or path of inquiry? Of course, the answer to this question will depend on your rhetorical situation. However, there are some common characteristics of a good research question in any situation:

It is answerable but not easily answerable.
Engaging and fruitful research questions require complex, informed answers. However, they shouldn’t be so subjective, intricate, or expansive that they simply cannot be answered in the scope of your rhetorical situation.
It is specific.
By establishing parameters on your scope, you can be sure your research is directed and relevant.
It matters to someone.
Research questions and the rhetoric they inform are valuable only because they have stakes: even if it’s a small demographic, the answers to your research question should impact someone.
It allows you to say something new or unique.
As discussed earlier in this chapter, inquiry-based research should encourage you to articulate a unique standpoint by synthesizing many different voices, interpreted from your individual perspective, with your life experiences and ideas. What you say doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but it shouldn’t just reiterate ideas, arguments, histories, or perspectives.

It is difficult to find a question that hits all these marks on your first try. As you proceed through research, prewriting, drafting, and revising, you should refine and adjust your question(s). Just like any other part of writing, developing a path of inquiry is iterative: you’ve got to take a lot of chances and work your way toward different results.

Working Questions

In order to find the best version of your research question, you should develop “working questions”—questions of all sizes and types that are pertinent to your subject. As you can see below, you can start with a handful of simple working questions that will eventually lead to a viable research question.

Revising Simple Questions into Research Questions
Table 19.2 Chart showing the steps of revising a research question from working question to research question
Beginning interest Working question Working research question Revised research question
Vietnamese food and culture What do people eat in Vietnam?
Too easy to answer; low stakes; not specific enough
What does Vietnamese food reflect about Vietnamese culture?
Higher stakes, more specific
How does Vietnamese cuisine reflect a history of colonialism?
More complex answers, higher stakes, very specific
Health Are people in the United States more obese than they used to be?
Too straightforward, not specific enough
Have obesity rates increased in the United States over the last one hundred years?
More specific
Is there a correlation between obesity rates and economic instability in the United States over the last one hundred years?
More complex answers, higher stakes, very specific
World religion What is the role of religion in the Middle East?
Not specific enough, difficult to answer in depth
How has religion influenced politics in the Middle East in the last fifty years?
More specific, easier to answer
How has religion’s influence on government impacted the day-to-day lives of Qatari citizens?
Very specific, higher stakes, more complex answers

As you hone your path of inquiry, you may need to zoom in or out in terms of scope: depending on your rhetorical situation, you will need different degrees of focus. Just like narration, research writing benefits from a careful consideration of scope. Often, a narrower scope is easier to work with than a broader scope—you will be able to write more and write better if your question asks for more complex thinking.

It’s important to be flexible throughout your research project. Be prepared to pivot topics, adjust your research question, change your opinions, and confront unanticipated challenges.

As you build a working knowledge of your topic, you might complicate or narrow your working questions. Gradually, try to articulate a research question (or combination of questions). Remember to be flexible as you research though: you might need to pivot, adjust, refocus, or replace your research question as you learn more.

Consider this imaginary case study as an example of this process:

Ahmed began his project by identifying the following areas of interest: racism in the US, technology in medicine and health care, and independent filmmaking. After doing some freewriting and preliminary research on each, he decided he wanted to learn more about racially motivated police violence. He developed working questions:

  • Are police officers likely to make judgments about citizens based on their race?
  • Have police forces instituted policies to avoid racism?
  • Who is most vulnerable to police violence?
  • Why does it seem like police officers target people of color? Who is responsible for overseeing the police?

He realized that he needed to narrow his focus to develop a more viable path of inquiry, eventually ending up with the following research question:

  • Over the last thirty years, what populations are most likely to experience police violence in the US?

However, after completing more research, Ahmed discovered that his answers came pretty readily: young Black men are significantly more vulnerable to be victims of police violence. He realized that he was not really saying anything new, so he had to tweak his path of inquiry.

Ahmed did some more freewriting and dug around to find a source that disagreed with him or added a new layer to his answers. He discovered eventually that there are a handful of police organizations that have made genuine efforts to confront racism in their practices. Despite the widespread and normalized violence enacted against people of color, these groups were working against racial violence. He reoriented his research question to be the following:

  • Have antiracist police trainings and strategies been effective in reducing individual or institutional racism over the last thirty years?

Discussion Questions

  1. What was the last thing you were truly curious about? How did you find more information about it? What was the last thing that pulled you down an internet rabbit hole?
  2. How would you adapt the following question so that it leads to further inquiry and analysis rather than the straightforward reporting of facts? “How can the average consumer reduce their carbon emissions?”


  1. Brainstorming. Create a catalog of topics you are personally curious about—things that you want to learn more about. These don’t have to be revolutionary things right away; it’s more important that they’re meaningful to you.
    1. First, choose three of the following broad topic headings: politics, science and technology, food, sports, music and art, other cultures and nations, social justice, the environment and sustainability, health and disease, business and economy, education. On your first sheet of a three-column paper, write those three topic headings.
    2. Next, underneath each topic heading, write bulleted lists of as many subtopics or related ideas that come to mind that interest you. (Try not to censor yourself here—the idea is to generate a large number of bullet points. To some extent, this is an exercise in free association: What are the first things that come to mind when you think of each topic?) Spend ten to fifteen minutes on your lists.
    3. Read over your lists, making note especially of items that surprised you. Choose the three items from the full page that most interest you. You can choose one from each column, three from the same, or any combination of lists, so long as you have three items that you care about.
  2. Idea generation: Internet stumbling. In addition to its status as an ever-expanding repository of knowledge and in addition to its contributions to global human connection, the internet is also an exceptional free-association machine. Through the magic of hyperlinks and social media, random chance can set us in the right direction to develop a research topic.

    Spend fifteen to twenty minutes clicking around on the internet, using one of the following media for guidance, and jot down every potential topic that piques your interest.

    1. Wikipedia: Go to the Wikipedia homepage and check out the “featured article” of the day, or choose “Random Article” from the sidebar on the far left. Click any of the hyperlinks in the article to redirect to a different page. Bounce from article to article, keeping track of the titles of pages and sections that catch your eye.
    2. An Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter feed: Flow through one or more social media feeds, using links, geotags, user handles, and hashtags to encounter a variety of posts.
    3. After stumbling, review the list you’ve made of potentially interesting topics. Are you already familiar with any of them? Which surprised you? Are there any relationships or intersections worth exploring further? From these topics and subtopics, try to articulate a viable and interesting research question that speaks to your curiosity.
  3. Moving from topics to questions: Small group activity. Begin to develop working and research questions by collaborating with your classmates to explore different curiosities.
    1. Divide your paper into three columns. Write three potential topics as headings, one in each column.
    2. Sit in a circle with your groupmates; each student should pass their three-column paper one position clockwise. For five minutes, each student will freewrite questions about each topic. No question is too big or small, too simple or complex. Try to generate as many questions as you possibly can. Then rotate your papers another step—repeat until you have your original sheet of paper back.
    3. Review the questions your groupmates compiled on your sheet. Have they offered anything that surprises you—issues you haven’t thought of, relationships between questions, recurring themes or patterns of interest, or foci that might yield interesting answers?
  4. Moving from topics to questions: Whole class gallery walk. Begin to develop working and research questions by collaborating with your classmates to explore different curiosities.
    1. Write your three favorite topic ideas in the headings of a three-column paper. Every student should tape their papers to the classroom wall, just below eye level, so that it forms a circular shape around the perimeter of the room.
    2. Each student in the class should stand in front of their paper, then rotate one position clockwise.
    3. At each new page, you will have two minutes to review the headings and freewrite questions about each topic. No question is too big or small, too simple or complex. Try to generate as many questions as you possibly can. Then rotate through clockwise until you’ve returned to your original position.
    4. Review the questions your classmates compiled on your sheet. Have they offered anything that surprises you—issues you haven’t thought of, relationships between questions, recurring themes or patterns of interest, or foci that might yield interesting answers?
  5. Focus and scope. At this point, you have hopefully identified some topic or path of inquiry for your research project. In order to experiment with scope, try complicating your research question(s) along the different dimensions in the following table. A completed table is included as an example after the blank one.
    • Blank Worksheet
      Table 19.3 A blank worksheet for scope experiments
      Your current topic or research question(s):
      Scope dimension More narrow More broad
      Time (When?) Notes: Notes:
      Place (Where?) Notes: Notes:
      Population (For whom?) Notes: Notes:
      Connections (Intersections with other issues) Notes: Notes:
      Other…(Topic-specific adjustments) Notes: Notes:
    • Downloadable copy
    • Model
      Table 19.4 A model of the scope worksheet
      Your current topic or research question(s):
      Should marijuana be legalized nationally?
      Scope dimension More narrow More broad
      Time (When?) Notes: What do trends in marijuana consumption in the last twenty years indicate about legislation? Notes: How has marijuana been treated legally over the last one hundred years?
      Place (Where?) Notes: Should marijuana be legal in our state? Notes: Should marijuana be legalized internationally?
      Population (For whom?) Notes: Should marijuana be legalized for medical users? Notes: How does marijuana compare with legal pharmaceutical drugs?
      Connections (Intersections with other issues) Notes: Does marijuana legalization correlate to addiction, economy, or crime? Notes: How does marijuana compare with legal pharmaceutical drugs?
      Other…(Topic-specific adjustments) Notes: Should marijuana sales be organized by the government? Notes: Should all drugs be legalized nationally?


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Finding a Research Question Copyright © 2022 by Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.