For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out university research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”
Process of Narrowing a Topic
All Possible Topics – You’ll need to narrow your topic in order to do research effectively. Without specific areas of focus, it will be hard to even know where to begin.
Assigned Topics – Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. Often, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you. One way to get ideas is to read background information in a source like Wikipedia.
Topic Narrowed by Initial Exploration – It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic to a) learn more about it and b) learn specialized terms used by professionals and scholars who study it.
Topic Narrowed to Research Question(s) – A research question defines exactly what you are trying to find out. It will influence most of the steps you take to conduct the research.
ACTIVITY: Which Topic Is Narrower?
Why Narrow a Topic?
Once you have a need for research—say, an assignment—you may need to prowl around a bit online to explore the topic and figure out what you actually want to find out and write about.
For instance, maybe your assignment is to develop a poster about “spring” for an introductory horticulture course. The instructor expects you to narrow that topic to something you are interested in and that is related to your class.
Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. In this case, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you about “spring” that is related to what you’re learning in your horticulture class and small enough to manage in the time you have.
One way to get ideas would be to read about spring in Wikipedia, looking for things that seem interesting and relevant to your class, and then letting one thing lead to another as you keep reading and thinking about likely possibilities that are more narrow than the enormous “spring” topic. (Be sure to pay attention to the references at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages and pursue any that look interesting. Your instructor is not likely to let you cite Wikipedia, but those references may be citable scholarly sources that you could eventually decide to use.)
Or, instead, if it is spring at the time you could start by just looking around, admire the blooming trees on campus, and decide you’d like your poster to be about bud development on your favourites, the crabapple trees.
Anna Narrows Her Topic and Works on a Research Question
The Situation: Anna, an undergraduate, has been assigned a research paper on Antarctica. Her instructor expects students to (1) narrow the topic on something more specific about Antarctica because they won’t have time to cover that whole topic. Then they are to (2) come up with a research question that their paper will answer.
The instructor explained that the research question should be something they are interested in answering and that it must be more complicated than what they could answer with a quick Google search. She also said that research questions often start with either the word “how” or “why.”
What you should do:
- Read what Anna is thinking below as she tries to do the assignment.
- After the reading, answer the questions at the end of the monologue in your own mind.
- Check your answers with ours at the end of Anna’s interior monologue.
- Keep this demonstration in mind the next time you are in Anna’s spot; you can mimic her actions and thinking about your own topic.
Anna’s Interior Monologue
Okay, I am going to have to write something—a research paper—about Antarctica. I don’t know anything about that place—I think it’s a continent. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever wanted to know about Antarctica. How will I come up with a research question about that place? Calls for Wikipedia, I guess.
At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctica. Just skimming. Pretty boring stuff. Oh, look– Antarctica’s a desert! I guess “desert” doesn’t have to do with heat. That’s interesting. What else could it have to do with? Maybe lack of precipitation? But there’s lots of snow and ice there. Have to think about that—what makes a desert a desert.
It says one to five thousand people live there in research stations. Year round. Definitely the last thing I’d ever do. “…there is no evidence that it was seen by humans until the 19th century.” I never thought about whether anybody lived in Antarctica first, before the scientists and stuff.
Lots of names—explorer, explorer… boring. It says Amundson reached the South pole first. Who’s Amundson? But wait. It says, “One month later, the doomed Scott Expedition reached the pole.” Doomed? Doomed is always interesting. Where’s more about the Scott Expedition? I’m going to use that Control-F technique and type in Scott to see if I can find more about him on this page. Nothing beyond that one sentence shows up. Why would they have just that one sentence? I’ll have to click on the Scott Expedition link.
But it gives me a page called Terra Nova Expedition. What does that have to do with Scott? And just who was Scott? And why was his expedition doomed? There he is in a photo before going to Antarctica. Guess he was English. Other photos show him and his team in the snow. Oh, the expedition was named Terra Nova after the ship they sailed this time—in 1911. Scott had been there earlier on another ship.
Lots of stuff about preparing for the trip. Then stuff about expedition journeys once they were in Antarctica. Not very exciting—nothing about being doomed. I don’t want to write about this stuff.
Wait. The last paragraph of the first section says “For many years after his death, Scott’s status as tragic hero was unchallenged,” but then it says that in the 20th century people looked closer at the expedition’s management and at whether Scott and some of his team could be personally blamed for the catastrophe. That “remains controversial,” it says. Catastrophe? Personally blamed? Hmm.
Back to skimming. It all seems horrible to me. They actually planned to kill their ponies for meat, so when they actually did it, it was no surprise. Everything was extremely difficult. And then when they arrived at the South Pole, they found that the explorer Amundsen had beaten them. Must have been a big disappointment.
The homeward march was even worse. The weather got worse. The dog sleds that were supposed to meet them periodically with supplies didn’t show up. Or maybe the Scott group was lost and didn’t go to the right meeting places. Maybe that’s what that earlier statement meant about whether the decisions that were made were good ones. Scott’s diary said the crystallized snow made it seem like they were pushing and pulling the sledges through dry sand.
It says that before things turned really bad (really bad? You’ve already had to eat your horses!), Scott allowed his men to put 30 pounds of rocks with fossils on the sledges they were pushing and dragging. Now was that sensible? The men had to push or pull those sledges themselves. What if it was those rocks that actually doomed those men?
But here it says that those rocks are the proof of continental drift. So how did they know those rocks were so important? Was that knowledge worth their lives? Could they have known?
Wow–there is drama on this page! Scott’s diary is quoted about their troubles on the expedition—the relentless cold, frostbite, and the deaths of their dogs. One entry tells of a guy on Scott’s team “now with hands as well as feet pretty well useless” voluntarily leaving the tent and walking to his death. The diary says that the team member’s last words were ”I am just going outside and may be some time.” Ha!
They all seem lost and desperate but still have those sledges. Why would you keep pulling and pushing those sledges containing an extra 30 pounds of rock when you are so desperate and every step is life or death?
Then there’s Scott’s last diary entry, on March 29, 1912. “… It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.” Well.
That diary apparently gave lots of locations of where he thought they were but maybe they were lost. It says they ended up only 11 miles from one of their supply stations. I wonder if anybody knows how close they were to where Scott thought they were.
I’d love to see that diary. Wouldn’t that be cool? Maybe it’s online? I’ll Google it.
Yes! At the British museum. Look at that! I can see Scott’s last entry IN HIS OWN HANDWRITING!
Actually, if I decide to write about something that requires reading the diary, it would be easier to not have to decipher his handwriting. Wonder whether there is a typed version of it online somewhere?
Maybe I should pay attention to the early paragraph on the Terra Nova Expedition page in Wikipedia—about it being controversial whether Scott and his team made bad decisions so that they brought most of their troubles on themselves. Can I narrow my topic to just the controversy over whether bad decisions of Scott and his crew doomed them? Maybe it’s too big a topic if I consider the decisions of all team members. Maybe I should just consider Scott’s decisions.
So what research question could come from that? Maybe: how did Scott’s decisions contribute to his team’s deaths in Antarctica? But am I talking about his decisions before or after they left for Antarctica? Or the whole time they were a team? Probably too many decisions involved. More focused: How did Scott’s decisions after reaching the South Pole help or hurt the chances of his team getting back safely? That’s not bad—maybe. If people have written about that. There are several of his decisions discussed on the Wikipedia page, and I know there are sources like books and articles listed at the bottom of that page.
Let me think—what else did I see that was interesting or puzzling about all this? I remember being surprised that Antarctica is a desert. So maybe I could make Antarctica as a desert my topic. My research question could be something like: Why is Antarctica considered a desert? But there has to be a definition of deserts somewhere online, so that doesn’t sound complicated enough. Once you know the definition of desert, you’d know the answer to the question. My instructor says research questions are more complicated than regular questions.
What’s a topic I could care about? A question I really wonder about? Maybe those rocks with the fossils in them. It’s just so hard to imagine desperate explorers continuing to push those sledges with an extra 30 pounds of rocks on them. Did they somehow know how important they would be? Or were they just curious about them? Why didn’t they ditch them? Or maybe they just didn’t realize how close to death they were. Maybe I could narrow my Antarctica topic to those rocks.
Maybe my topic could be something like: The rocks that Scott and his crew found in Antarctica that prove continental drift. Maybe my research question could be: How did Scott’s explorers choose the rocks they kept?
Well, now all I have is questions about my questions. Like, is my instructor going to think the question about the rocks is still about Antarctica? Or is it all about continental drift or geology or even the psychology of desperate people? And what has been written about the finding of those rocks? Will I be able to find enough sources? I’m also wondering whether my question about Scott’s decisions is too broad—do I have enough time for it?
I think my instructor is the only one who can tell me whether my question about the rocks has enough to do with Antarctica. Since she’s the one who will be grading my paper. But a librarian can help me figure out the other things.
So Dr. Sanders and a librarian are next.
- Was Anna’s choice to start with Wikipedia a good choice? Why or why not?
- Have you ever used that Control-F technique?
- At what points does Anna think about where to look for information?
- At the end of this session, Anna hasn’t yet settled on a research question. So what did she accomplish? What good was all this searching and thinking?
Here are our answers below.
- Was Anna’s choice to start with Wikipedia a good choice? Why or why not? Wikipedia is a great place to start a research project. Just make sure you move on from there, because it’s a not a good place to end up with your project. One place to move on to is the sources at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages.
- Have you ever used that Control-F technique? If you haven’t used the Control-F technique, we hope you will. It can save you a lot of time and effort reading online material. On a Mac, it’s Command-F.
- At what points does Anna think about where to look for information? When she began; when she wanted to know more about the Scott expedition; when she wonders whether she could read Scott’s diary online; when she thinks about what people could answer her questions.
- At the end of this session, Anna hasn’t yet settled on a research question. So what did she accomplish? What good was all this reading and thinking? There are probably many answers to this question. Ours includes that Anna learned more about Antarctica, the subject of her research project. She focused her thinking (even if she doesn’t end up using the possible research questions she’s considering) and practiced critical thinking skills, such as when she thought about what she could be interested in, when she worked to make her potential research questions more specific, and when she figured out what questions still needed answering at the end. She also practiced her skills at making meaning from what she read, investigating a story that she didn’t expect to be there and didn’t know had the potential of being one that she is interested in. She also now knows what questions she needs answered and whom to ask. These thinking skills are what university is all about. Anna is way beyond where she was when she started.