Before you select a topic or develop a research question, it is important to understand your assignment. Understanding your assignment from the outset will help you craft a research question that you can adequately answer in the space and time allotted to you. In this section, we will look at some questions to ask when first decoding a prompt:
Video: Understanding Assignments. UNC Writing Center (2018)
Adapted from: Swarthmore Writing Associates Program, Understanding Your Assignment (2023); Grinnell College, Choosing A Research Topic; The University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center, Understanding Your Assignment.
In some cases, an instructor may assign you a topic or a list of topics. In other cases, you might be asked to generate a topic on your own. An assignment may also fall somewhere between these two cases, asking you to pick a narrower topic from a broader one. In this section we will talk about strategies for selecting a topic that both interests you and helps you develop a research question.
Video: Picking a Topic is Research. University of Houston Libraries (2020).
Adapted from: Purdue Online Writing Lab, Choosing a Topic.
In this section we will discuss some exercises designed to help you generate topics for your paper:
Chart: Concept Mapping Concept Map. Teton Science Schools (TSS). This concept map depicts ideas related to the concept mapping technique.
Chart: Personal philosophy concept map and rationale. Myles’ Blog (2016).
In the video below, English Literature PhD student Lucy Hargrave explains how graduate students in the humanities can use concept maps to help them organize their thoughts and notes:
Video: How I Use MindMaps as a PhD Student: Organising my Research Notes. Lucy Hargrave (2021).
Now that you have narrowed down your topic, let's turn that topic into a research question. In this section we will talk about how to develop a question that sets you up for success. Keep in mind that your question may change as you gather more information and start writing—this is okay! Having a sense of your direction from the outset can help you evaluate sources and identify relevant information during the research process.
Evaluate the questions you’ve asked and pick one that speaks to you. If there are a few questions that interest you, focus and tailor their components into a singular research question which you can address in the space and time allotted for your paper. Consider the wording of the question and the scope of the assignment. A good research question is clear, focused, and has an appropriate level of complexity. Developing a strong question is a process, so you will likely refine your question as you continue to research and to develop your ideas. Use the following guidelines to evaluate whether or your question will be appropriate for your assignment:
Clarity. Is your question clear? Do you have a specific aspect of your general topic that you are going to explore further?
Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful sometimes?
Clear: How are online users experiencing privacy issues on the social networking sites Facebook and TikTok?
Focus. Is your question focused? Will you be able to cover the topic adequately in the space available?
Unfocused: How are Asian Americans represented in the media?
Focused: How do television advertisements in the United States perpetuate the model minority stereotype?
Complexity. Is your question sufficiently complex? Can your question be answered with a simple yes/no response or does it requires research and analysis?
Too simple: Did COVID-19 affect parents?
Appropriately Complex: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the mental health and work-life balance of teleworking parents with young children?
Video: Developing a Research Question. Laurier Library (2017).