Before you begin the work of writing a research paper, it’s essential to first develop a research question. A research question is simply a focused question about a problem you and your readers think is worth solving. The answer to the research question becomes the thesis statement.
The first step is to find a topic you are both interested in and one that can be researched. You may think of many topics that interest you, but if there is no research available, it’s not going to work for a research paper topic. Likewise, if you find a topic with lots of available research but you have little interest in, you’ll want to poke pencils in your eyeballs as you try to write a long research paper about it. Spend some time considering a topic that interests you or that you have some prior knowledge about, and the research paper will be a much more enjoyable process.
Picking a Topic
A topic provides a focus for the paper, and a major topic can often be broken down into smaller components. For example, you want to write about pollution. What type of pollution? Air pollution? Noise pollution? Trash pollution? You pick trash. What kind of trash pollution? Keep narrowing the topic until it’s well-defined.
Once you have narrowed your topic, define the issue. The issue is the research problem on which you’ll argue. What about trash pollution? Trash pollution can be broken down into still more components, but you want to focus on plastic water bottles. The topic is trash pollution, and the issue is the environmental impact of plastic water bottles.
How would you formulate this topic and issue into a research question?
Research Question: What are the environmental impacts of using plastic water bottles?
Great start! This is focused, not too broad, and not too narrow.
Narrowing Your Topic
Say you wanted to research the topic of standardized testing; so what about standardized testing? The topic of standardized testing itself is too broad, so you will need to create a focused question you want to investigate. Try to ask yourself as many questions as necessary until the topic is well-defined:
Do you want to focus on elementary, high school, or college? You decide, since you are a college freshman, you want to focus it on college freshmen.
So what about standardized testing and college freshmen? Maybe you think that standardized testing doesn’t really reflect a student’s ability.
Good. This is more focused, but still not a research question. So what about the connection between standardized testing, ability and college freshmen?
Is standardized testing a good predictor of college academic success?
Bull’s-eye! This is a focused question, with available research. If you were to answer the question, you would have an arguable thesis.
Narrowing your Topic #2
Perhaps you are interested in the effects of television. This topic is much too broad; what about the effects of television? On who? What type of television? Reality TV or the 6:00 news? Positive effects or negative effects? Too many questions are unanswered and still need to be defined.
You decide you want to focus on violence and television. This is more focused, but still lacks a well-defined concept. What about television and violence? You wonder, does watching television cause violence? That’s a start, but still leaves too many unanswered questions. Again, what type of television? Does television cause violence in children, in adults, or both? Continue to narrow the topic until it is well-defined and considers a researchable question.
Does watching violent television programs cause violent behavior in adolescents?
Good! This is narrow enough to focus a paper, and the question can be answered with research focused on adolescents, or puberty-age to pre-adult teens.
Re-considering Your Topic
It’s not uncommon to pick a topic, develop a research question, start digging into the research, then find that you want to go in a different direction. Let’s consider the previous topic of the effects of television violence on adolescents. You still want to research the effects of television, but after sifting through the research, you decide it’s more interesting to focus on television’s positive effects. You decide to shift from researching the negative effects of television to researching the positive effects. Again, keep answering the “so what?” questions; so what type of positive effects? What type of television? What age range?
Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children?
Interesting! You hadn’t even thought about this topic, but once you started considering a related topic and reading the research, you re-formulated the topic and narrowed it down into a research question that is well-defined, has lots of research available, and is interesting to you – the perfect combination!
As you can see, it takes some time and thought to formulate a strong research question, but taking the time to develop a strong research question will pave the way for a strong essay.