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Research Questions: How to make a good one

A good research question allows you to focus your writing and provide you with an answer that will form the basis of your thesis. Research questions do not need appear in the actual paper, but having one will ensure that you remain focused while going through the writing process, and more importantly, your paper has a point!

So… What makes a good research question?

At the most basic level, it must be centered around the topic you wish to research. So, first you need a topic. Once you have a topic the following steps will help you form a good research question:

  • Narrow your topic
  • List questions about your topic
  • Pick a question
  • Focus your question

Now that you have a question, what type of question is it? There are several common types of research questions:

Descriptive: Descriptive questions simply describe a phenomena. The questions are often:

  • What is/are… something?
  • How many… How often… How much… or, How frequently… is/are/does a phenomena occur.

Example: What are the computer abilities of high school students in America?

Relationship: Relationship questions look at the association between variables. A typical question would look like:

  • What is the relationship between “x” and “y”?

Example: What is the relationship between household income and primary students test scores?

Comparative: Comparative questions look for the differences and/or similarities between groups. A question of this type would look like this:

  • What is the difference between “x” and “y”?
  • What are the similarities between “x” and “y”?

Example: What is the difference in teacher computer efficiency between developed and developing nations?

Causality: Causality questions seek to answer questions about how one variable affects another or how does one level of an independent variable affect another level. These questions deal with cause and effect  and look like:

  • What is the effect of…?
  • How do … differ from … in …?
  • Is … better than … at/for/in …?

Example: How do children who grow up in homes with lots of access to reading materiel differ from those who grow up in book-less homes in SAT scores?

You have followed the steps and you have a question, but…

Is it a good question?

To be a good question, one that will guide you as you get your thoughts down on paper, and one that will give you enough thoughts to write a paper, a good research question must be:

  • Narrow, but not too narrow
  • Broad but not too broad
  • Objective but not too objective
  • Subjective but not too subjective
  • Simple but not too simple
  • Complex but not too complex

Confused? Here are some examples:

Too narrow: What is the average GPA of students in year one at University of Victoria? You don’t have a paper? You have a statistic.

Less narrow: How does the socioeconomic status of students affect first year GPA scores at University of Victoria? Now you have something to research and write about.

Too broad: What are the effects of computers in the classroom? This question is just too big. One could write a book about it.

Less broad: What academic outcomes do computers produce in middle school classrooms? Now you have areas to focus your paper, collect data, and discuss results.

Too objective: How much time do high school teachers spend preparing lessons? This question can be answered without the need of a research paper; it just needs some data.

More subjective: What is the relationship between teacher prep time and the academic performance of students? With this question one can not only collect data but make an argument based on the results and analysis of the data.

Too simple: What technologies are available for use in the classroom? This question does not require an academic research paper to answer and there is really nothing to talk about.

More complex: What are the effects on students’ academic performance as a result of technologies being made available in high school classrooms? This question will allow for the evaluation of data and the comparison of different classroom environments and how it affects that data. There will be ample room for discussion of the results.

In short, a good research question is going to allow the researcher to look at a topic in a new and interesting way with a point to be made that is backed up by data.



Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching

Research Questions, by Dr. Melanie Maggard

(Image licensed from: Adobe Stock)

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