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Start Your Research: Develop a Research Question

What is a Research Question?

A research question is a clear, specific, and answerable question that serves as the foundation for your assignment. The question guides your research and keeps your assignment focused. 

If your question is too broad, there will be too much information on the topic. This may result in the final assignment being unfocused, irrelevant, or not containing enough analysis. 

If your question is too narrow, you won’t find enough research or evidence to answer the question. 

A good research question usually starts with 'How' or 'Why' because these types of questions are open ended and require more analysis.

The question should also be: 

  • Debatable. It should not be a yes/no question and there should be more than one possible answer.
  • Defensible. You need to be able to find evidence to support the question and your argument. 
  • Not so simple that it can be answered by a quick Google search. 

Your research question may change as you conduct your research. That's okay! Research is not a linear process and you can adapt your research question as you go. 

Here's a tip

Background Research
It can be helpful to conduct background research while developing a research question. Background research helps identify ideas or themes related to a general topic, which can be used to narrow your topic into a research question.

Bias in Research Topics

Unbalanced scale demonstrates confirmation biasWe often bring our own biases and perspectives to our work. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of researcher bias.

One of the most common examples of researcher bias is Confirmation Bias. This is when a researcher selectively chooses resources that support or confirm their pre-existing understanding of a subject and they ignore evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. 

It’s important to answer your research question based on the evidence you gather and not on pre-conceived ideas about the topic. Gather research and evidence that supports all possible answers to your question and answer the research question based on the available research, even if it disagrees with your initial understanding of the topic. 

Develop a Research Question

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a research question is and why we use it in academic research, let's look at how we create a research question.

On this page we will look at three simple steps to creating a researchable question:

  • Step 1: Choose a General Topic
  • Step 2: Narrow Your Topic
  • Step 3: Create a Research Question
  • (if necessary - repeat!)

Step 1: Choose a General Topic

You often start research with a general topic that needs to be narrowed into a research question. Your instructor may assign the general topic or you may choose it on your own (review your Assignment Requirements). 

General topic examples

  • US policing vs. Canadian policing
  • The effects of police brutality
  • Indigenous peoples and the Canadian criminal justice system
  • Intergenerational trauma
  • Mental health and police officers
  • Diversity in policing
The topics above are too broad for a research assignment. 
Your topic should be narrow enough that you can find all relevant research on the topic.
The topics above are large enough to fill multiple books, not a research essay.

Step 1: Try it!

Let's choose the general topic mental health and police officers. Now move to Step 2: Narrow Your Topic.

Step 2: Narrow Your Topic

You need to narrow your general topic to make it researchable.

Here are some examples for ways to narrow your topic. Please note, you do not need to use all of these elements at once. 

  • Demographic characteristics - Age group, occupation, gender, etc. 
  • Relevant issues - Identify key issues related to your topic 
  • Timeframe - Recent events or historical time period?
  • Location - Will it be Canada-specific or another geographical area?
  • Causes - Take the perspective of looking for causes of the issue.
  • Components - Can your key topic be broken into smaller parts
  • Relationship - Do two or more perspectives or variables relate to another? [e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, contemporary/historical, group/individual, child/adult, opinion/reason, problem/solution].


Not sure how to narrow your topic

Consider creating a mind map with your general topic in the centre. Write down everything you can think about your topic and create links between connected concepts or subtopics.

Step 2: Try it!

Let's narrow our general topic mental health and police officers using some suggestions from above.

First, let's narrow to a Relevant Issue, for example PTSD in police officers. This topic is still too broad though, so let's narrow further. Some suggestions:

  1. Relevant Issue(s): Methods to treat PTSD 
  2. Component: Choose a method to treat PTSD in police officers
  3. Relationship: Compare/contrast two methods
  4. Demographic: Explore how a treatment method impacts a specific population of police officers

Ready for Step 3: Create a Research Question!

Step 3: Create a Research Question

It's time to take our narrow topic and reword it as a research question. Remember, a good research question usually starts with "How" or "Why", because these types of questions require more analysis. 

Your question should be debatable, there should be more than one answer to the question, and it should not be answerable with a quick Google search. The goal of your paper is to use research as evidence to prove which argument is most correct. 

Your research question might also change or evolve.

As you conduct research you'll sometimes find the first draft(s) of your research question is still too broad, or maybe has become too narrow. It's natural for your research question to change or evolve as you gather your sources. Remember, research is not a linear process. 

Step 3: Try it!

Step 3: Here are some sample research questions based on the narrower topics we created in Step 2. You would choose one of the research questions for your academic paper. 

  1. How can individual therapy help treat PTSD in police officers?
  2. How can individual therapy versus group therapy treat PTSD in police officers?