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 their college 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.
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, or one of the library's many reference databases.
Topic Narrowed by Initial Exploration
Start by doing some 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)
There is a big difference between a research topic and a research question. A research question usually starts with "how" or "why," not "What" or "Should." A research question asks about the relationships between concepts in your research topic, and 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?
The database Academic OneFile includes a tool called Topic Finder, which visualizes the relationships between research subjects. Search the Topic Finder tool with the phrase "climate change" and browse the related topics. Make a list of three to five narrower topics you discover through this search.
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 favorites, the crabapple trees.
Example: Anna's Research Question
Anna, an undergraduate, has been assigned a research paper on Antarctica. Read Anna's interior monologue to see how Anna transforms her research topic into a research question.