Formulating Research Questions

Examine your assignment. As you decide on your project’s focus, QUESTIONING is an important first step of research. Students usually ask, A)  What is required of me?   B)  What’s my timeline for completion?  C)  What resources should I select for a really strong start?  However, you also need to take time to focus your research upon answering a Research-able Question.

Formulating an Over-arching Question (OAQ) that is “research-able” takes a little while and can be accomplished during the early stages of research when you are working with Reference Sources and conferencing with the teacher and librarian.  Short, broad reference articles (like from a specialized encyclopedia) help you turn a topic that you’re assigned into a compelling broad over-arching question  (OAQ.)

You will support that OAQ with more narrow “focus questions”  (FQ’s) in order to have a strategy for research.  Your OAQ and FQ’s must begin with one of the following question stems:

  • How…?   
  • Which…?   
  • Why…?   
  • To what extent…? 

The goal of formulating such broad HIGHER LEVEL questions is to position yourself to take notes that MATTER.  You want to avoid a research paper that is merely gathers random facts about a topic.  Aimless fact-gathering results in a disappointing “knowledge regurgitation” paper (that doesn’t really get below the surface or show off much critical thinking skill.)  Rather, you want to seize the opportunity to go in a direction of your natural curiosity… and go DEEP.  Your questions should require critical thinking, evidence-gathering and eventually the synthesis of ideas and un-obvious insights from various sources. You want the journey to be INTERESTING to you as an individual.  And the result of your journey will be the ability to present an original thesis statement that makes a well supported (possibly tension-filled, controversial) claim about the topic of your research.

As you continue researching, you ask yourself, is my topic narrow enough? Or… is it expansive enough?  What examples help me?

ESPRAT+G: A popular analytical tool that is loaded with questioning models (of varying breadth) is the ESPRAT+G site. Few high school students will be able to manage a research project that tries to tackle more than one of the 7 ESPRAT+G categories, though.  Sometimes a really narrow and deep research project will explore the impact of one category on another.

The importance of Focus Questions:

When you develop your 3-4 FQ’s, also using the “prime” stems, they help you generate a list of key words or subtopics to use in search engines to collect answers to your research questions. Of course, you’ll have many additional questions of more narrow focus, and they are often the more easily answered “who, what, when, where” questions that have short, fact-based answers.  Just make sure you are not wasting time in note-taking for facts that aren’t necessary to answering your OAQ and FQ’s.In time, the application of one’s Overarching Question (OAQ) and focusing strategy will result in the sections of your paper.

This might happen to you:  It is natural to experience a change over the first week of research; students often formulate a very broad and ambitious Over-arching Question at first. But after some time with reference sources, the student often realizes that her first OAQ is just too broad and doesn’t give her the chance to show off deep research and analytic skill. So eventually she abandons her “Day 1”  overarching question for a narrower and do-able focus question (possibly the one that was her favorite FQ from the start.)  Then she shapes a new set of focus questions for deeper learning. The important thing is to commit to a refined OAQ and FQs without wasting too much researching time at any point that you are floundering with way too much to try to tackle.  (Save the “way-too broad questions” for your grad school dissertation.)

Grading criteria:

If the librarian is involved in evaluating your Research Questions, she’ll look for them at the top of your NoodleTools dashboard or you might be asked by her to report your first reference article and research questions on this form:  open the Google Form.

  • 1) Is your set of questions COMPLETELY done and on time?  1 OAQ supported by 3 FQs that are actually QUESTIONS and not topics. Late work loses credit.
  • 2) Is it stated in “prime” or “to what extent” form?  That is, MUST start with How…, Which… or Why… or To What Extent…
  • 3) Are the questions supplied as complete sentences?
  • 4) Having had time to work with reference sources to see how a topic could be narrowed, are these questions sufficiently focused for a project of this length?  (Kids with zero citations might not have discovered how to narrow their focus for depth and detail and analysis (as opposed to too broad and shallow and encyclopedia-ey).  Students should be developing projects that go way beyond what one would find in an encyclopedia article on their topic.
  • 5) If necessary, student has explored how to narrow the topic with the teacher or librarian.  Librarian is available for conferencing throughout the day if it will help.