34 Research Questions

Identifying What You Know & Don’t Know

Once you have narrowed down your research topic and done some preliminary background reading on your topic, it’s time to start thinking about—and writing down—what you already know about your topic and what you are interested in finding out. Identifying the gaps in your knowledge will help you to create research questions that will guide your research. For instance, if you have decided to research the effects of divorce on children, you’d want to first think about what knowledge you already have on that topic. Next, write down what you do not know but are curious to find out.

What I know:

  • Divorce is common in the United States
  • Sometimes children are negatively affected by their parents getting divorced

What I don’t know:

  • Is there a certain age that children are more prone to the negative effects of divorce?
  • Can children carry negative effects of divorce with them into adulthood?
  • How can divorce impact academic performance?
  • How can the effects of divorce be mitigated?

Though you may not be aware of it, you are mentally engaging in this process many times throughout the day. The process of seeking information for everyday questions is a bit different than for research questions, however. Take a look at the examples of regular questions and research questions below. While regular questions are easily answered by a quick online search (e.g., Google), research questions will take more exploration.

Examples: Regular vs. Research Questions

Regular Question: What time is my movie showing at Lennox on Friday?

Research Question: How do “sleeper” films end up having outstanding attendance figures?


Regular Question: What can I do about my insomnia?

Research Question: How do flights more than 16 hours long affect the reflexes of commercial jet pilots?


Regular Question: How many children in the U.S. have allergies?

Research Question: How does his or her country of birth affect a child’s chances of developing asthma?


Regular Question: What year was metformin approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration?

Research Question: Why are nanomedicines, such as doxorubicin, worth developing?


Regular Question: Could citizens register to vote at branches of the Columbus Public Library in 2016?

Research Question: How do public libraries in the United States support democracy?

Choosing the Right Question

Once you have a list of several aspects of your topic that you are curious about, choose one that interests you most and create a research question from it. Be sure to choose something that aligns with the parameters of your assignment and that you believe is feasible to research given the amount of time and resources you have access to. Research questions that are too vague will leave you swimming in a sea of irrelevant information, while a research question that is too specific will make it very difficult to find enough information sources to support your research.

Too broad: What is the impact of divorce on academic performance?

Too narrow: What is the impact of divorce on female student’s grades during fifth grade in the United States?

Just right:  How can divorce affect a student’s GPA in high school?


Examples adapted from “Regular vs. Research Questions” by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries, licensed under CC BY 4.0



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Introduction to College Research Copyright © by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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