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ENGL 1100/1110/1120: Refine Research questions


Research questions are open-ended and require a variety of accumulated data to develop an answer. ("Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?")

Review or report questions are typically answered with what is generally known about a fairly narrow topic. ("What is the rationale for California's "3 strikes" sentencing policy?")

Reference questions are typically answered with single known facts or statistics. ("What percentage of drug-related crime in 1999 was committed by dealers, not users?")

What Makes a Question Good?

A simple question.......

  • can be answered with a "yes" or "no" (this is not helpful when trying to elicit further questions, discussion, or analysis).
  • contain the answers within themselves.
  • can only be answered by a fact, or a series of facts.

A critical question....

  • leads to more questions.
  • provokes discussion.
  • concerns itself with audience and authorial intent.
  • derives from a critical or careful reading of the text or understanding of a topic.
  • addresses or ties in wider issues.
  • moves you out of your own frame of reference ("What does this mean in our context?") to your author's ("What was the author trying to convey when he/she wrote this? How would the audience have responded?").

Reading, Writing, and Researching for History

Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College, 2004 

Research Question Ideas

  • Ask speculative questions.

  • Ask What if? questions.

  • Ask how the topic fits into larger contexts.

  • Ask questions that reflect disagreements with a source.

  • Ask questions that build on agreements with a source.

  • Ask questions about the nature of the thing itself, as an independent entity.

  • Ask questions analogous to those that others have asked about similar topics.

  • Turn positive questions into negative ones.

  • Look for questions posed in scholarly articles; ask part of the questions.

  • Find a Web discussion list on your topic...reading the exchanges to understand the kinds of questions those on the list discuss.

(A manual for writing, 2007, pp 15-17)

Evaluate Your Questions

You can answer the question too easily

  • You can look it up.
  • You can summarize a source.

You can’t find good evidence to support the answer

  • No relevant facts exist.
  • The question is based on preference or taste.
  • You must read too many sources.
  • You can’t get the sources that your readers think are crucial.

You can’t plausibly disprove the answer

  • The answer seems self-evident because the evidence overwhelmingly favors one answer.

(A manual for writing, 2007, pp.17-18)