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Global Encounters in Chicago: Develop a Research Question

Tips for developing a research question

Developing a Research Question

From Interest to Topic

Start by thinking about subjects that interest you, try making a list.

To narrow down your list and choose, consider these questions:

  • Is this topic related to the themes and scope of the class? Does it fit the assignment?
  • Is this topic interesting to other people (students and teachers in my field, the general public, etc) or just to me?
  • Is there material about this topic available to me (in this case, in the collections of records here)?


Tips for finding topics:   

  • Look through the Finding Aid for an available collection and note materials that interest you (Choosing an exciting source or set of sources and then thinking of topics it can tell you about it is a clever way to brainstorm topics.)
  • Look back through course readings and your notes from class for ideas


Next try to focus your topic. If your topic is too broad like “Chicago politics” you won’t be able to gather enough information or cover the topic. If your topic is too narrow like “Mayor Daley’s dog’s toys” you won’t be able to find much material about it.  

                Hint: most topics are too broad so you will probably have to focus yours down.


From Topic to Question

Once you settle on a topic to research you can’t just start collecting information. With only a topic you could search endlessly for material about it and never know when you have enough or what that material shows us.

How will you know what information about that topic is important? You may waste time collecting irrelevant material.

Why do you want to spend time researching the topic? Why will the people reading your report or listening to your presentation care about it? You’ll need to tell them more than a collection of random things you found about a topic.  

You need to ask a question about your topic whose answer solves a problem that you and your readers care about.

Start by asking basic questions: who, what, when, and where, but focus on how and why. These will lead you to more meaningful and engaging questions about your topic.


Try these steps:

Step 1: Name your topic

                I am trying to learn about ­________________.

Step 2: Add an Indirect Question:

                I am researching _________________

                because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how ­_____________.


Questions to avoid:

Don’t ask a question that can be answered by a settled fact, or series of facts, or by a yes or no.

Did Mayor Daley have a dog? (He did. Not only is this report short, it’s boring.) Questions about why or how invite deeper thinking but they also offer more interesting and more useful answers.

Don’t ask a question that can only be answered by an opinion or a speculation.

Would Robert Kennedy have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if he was alive? This is a question that cannot be answered using evidence.

Was it good/bad, right/wrong for Hubert Humphrey to support the war in Vietnam? These questions only ask for an opinion – plus they are not as interesting or useful as other questions about this topic that we could answer with evidence: Why did Humphrey continue to support the war? How did Humphrey win the nomination despite rising antiwar sentiment?

Don’t ask a question that leads to a dead end.

How many delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 had steaks for dinner on the second night? We might be able to answer this question using evidence after some research, but is the answer worth knowing? Choose a question whose answer would help us think about a larger issue worth understanding better. 


From a Question to a Strong Research Question


After you have a draft research question or a couple questions you are deciding between, you want to make sure your question is strong. 

Try asking yourself “so what?” Why does this matter? Would my classmates care about the answer to this question, or could they respond by wondering “so what, who cares?” Would it matter if nobody ever found the answer?  What will be lost if you don’t answer your question?

Answering these “so what” questions can be very difficult, especially as you are just beginning a research project – sometimes when you only have a question it is hard to tell why the answer will be important. Keeping “so what?” in mind will help you think about the value of your research for yourself and others. 


Try completing this additional step to think about why you want your reader/classmates to know and care about this:


Step 3: Answer “so what?”


(topic)                   I am researching _________________

(question)           because I want to find out whether/why/how ­_______________________

(significance)     in order to help my reader understand whether/why/how _________________



                I am researching the construction of the UIC campus in the early 1960s

                because I want to find out how it impacted the people who lived in the Near West Side

                in order to help my reader understand how urban development projects affect neighborhood communities.


[Adapted from Booth, Colomb, and WilliamsThe Craft of Research]

More Resources

The Craft of Research

E-book of this popular guide to the research process for researchers at all levels.