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Steps for Developing a Good Research Question

A good research question will help you (and your readers) articulate the direction of your research - what issue you are trying to look at and what kind of information you need to be looking for. Here are a few steps to guide you from choosing a topic to formulating a good research question. 


Steps  Resources to help you

Step 1. Choose a general topic

If you are working on an assignment project, it is likely that you are required to define a research topic yourself. Try brainstorming some topics from these angles:

  • What matters to you?
  • Any issues you have discussed in class before?
  • Any news that has an impact on you?

You do not need to have a very specific question in mind at this point. Instead, start with a general topic that you wish to explore. 

Watch this short video to get some ideas about how to pick the right topic:

Source: NC State Libraries (CC BY-NC-SA)

Step 2. Read background information

Once you have a general topic in mind, the next step is to turn it into a "researchable" one. Find and read background information on your topic to see what others are writing about.

To find background information, you can read from

  • Wikipedia - a free source to quickly get an overview of a topic/ subject
  • Credo Reference - a library database for credible background information

Be skeptical of what you read online. For Wikipedia articles, verify the information by checking against its references. 

Some relevant tools and tips:

  • Google searching tips - to search info on Google more effectively
  • CRAP Test - a tool to help you evaluate popular information sources
  • Using Wikipedia - a video to show you some tips on finding trustworthy information on Wikipedia

Step 3. Narrow the topic

As you read more, think about what narrower aspects are interesting to you. You can use the 5W questions to help you:

  • WHO are the people or groups you want to focus on?
  • WHAT ASPECT of the topic interests you? Economic? Technological? Educational? or Ethical?
  • WHEN / WHAT TIME PERIOD will you focus on?
  • WHERE do you want to focus, geographically? 
  • WHY is this study important?

Write down your ideas, or use a mind map to structure and visualize your ideas. 


Learn how mind mapping works:

Source: Mind Mapping from Joshua Vossler

Step 4. Formulate a research question

After gathering the information, you are ready to turn it into a research question. A good research question should be:

  • open-ended - cannot be answered by yes/no or facts; an open-ended question usually starts with "how" or "why"
  • focused / specific - can be answered in the space you write about it
  • manageable - within the scope, not too narrow or broad so it can be answered within the time frame
  • debatable - allow the development of argument

A few examples of not-ideal research questions (x) and the improved versions (v)

(x) Does artificial intelligence make an impact on the world? (closed question)
(v) How does artificial intelligence have an impact on education among adolescents in Hong Kong? (open-ended; more specific)

(x) How does the typhoon influence Hong Kong? (too broad; not clear)
(v) How do the late summer typhoons influence the water quality of Hong Kong marine water? (more specific and debatable)

(x) Why do some countries have more women politicians than others? ("some countries" - not specific)
Why does Sweden have more women politicians at the national level than Canada?
(more specific)

(x) Why is cyberbullying becoming more prevalent? (too broad; not manageable)
What are the social factors leading to the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying among Chinese youth?
(limit by "what aspect" and "who" - more manageable)


Watch the videos to learn how to develop a research question

For student assignments:

Source: PolyU Library


More detailed explanation - for thesis and journal publications:

Source: Wilfrid Laurier Library (CC BY)

Step 5. Further refine the topic

You have come up with your research question. Now you may start searching the related information to answer the question. 

It is important to note that doing research is never a linear process, which means you may need to refine your question based on the resources you can reach, and the findings you read from the studies. 


Do check with your course instructor or supervisor if you are unsure about your research topic or question. 

Contact your Faculty Librarian if you need any help on searching the literature and refining the topic.