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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

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:


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