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First Year Research Experience (FYRE) Support Guide for Research Coaches

Research Cycle: Question

Students often struggle with identifying and narrowing a research question or topic. It is important to remind students that research is a non-linear process which requires persistence and patience. Question development is a skill that takes practice, initial research, feedback, error, and discovery.  

Choosing a Topic & Formulating a Research Question

Picking a Topic:
Depending on the course, students may be provided with research or essay topics or they may be expected to pick their own topic.  Often even if a topic is assigned, students will still be required to refine the topic to a specific research question.

Here are some guiding questions students can ask themselves when deciding on their topic:

  • Do I have a strong opinion on a current issue related to the course content?
  • Did I see or read a news story recently that has piqued my interest or evoked an emotional response related to the course content?
  • Do I have a personal challenge or interest that I would like to know more about as related to the course content?
  • Is there something I am curious to learn more about from the course readings? Is there a section or topic in the course textbook that I am interested in learning more about? 

Refining a Topic and Formulating a Research Question:
There are various ways to refine and focus a research topic: 

  • A quick Google search can be helpful to explore and map the potential directions or sub-topics of a given topic.
  • Students can also ask themselves: what interests me about this topic?  What do I have experience with? What am I curious to learn more about?   
  • Mind maps and concept maps are excellent tools for students to capture and visualize their research topic.

Questions, questions, questions: students can begin noting interesting questions to help focus their topic and brainstorm potential research questions. These may be good prompts to ask: who? what? when? why? why not? why does this matter? where? how? in what ways? so what? under what circumstances? 

A good research question is:

  • Clear (is presented in a concise and straightforward way to the reader) 
  • Complex (is not answerable with yes or no)
  • Focused (can be adequately explored within the confines of the assignment / not too broad and not too narrow)
  • Takes a position or presents an argument (is not neutral and is open to debate)

"Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis" (source).

The resources below provide many examples of good research questions (as compared to poor research questions or topics).

Further Resources

Resources developed by past FYRE coaches

Student textbook:

  • Chapter One: Research Questions (from Choosing and Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, Ohio State University). Tip: Use the arrows in the bottom left and right corners to navigate within this e-book.

The contents within this chapter are:

  • The purpose of research questions
  • Narrowing a topic
  • Background readings
  • Regular vs. research questions
  • Influence of a research question
  • Developing your research question

Student handouts:

Student videos:

Lesson plan:


The University Library offers various workshops throughout the term on topics such as refining a research topic.  Please encourage your FYRE students to attend these workshops!