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Using Questions to Develop Good Research Topics

Using Questions to Develop Good Research Topics

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses the importance of asking questions when developing research topics.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We'll look at how to begin the research process, from thinking about research to a discussion about research questions, and how to develop a thesis from these questions. Then we'll look at a few examples, so you can see how this process can actually happen.

The first thing writers should do when beginning the writing process for a research paper is develop a research plan. And to do this, they need to consider their goals and purposes for the essay. This will help them determine the kind of research that needs to be done, as well as what kind of sources will be most valuable, and how to structure the essay.

A writer's purpose will vary depending on the context. But this lesson will emphasize research writing in an academic context, particularly for student writers. But for any academic research, it all starts with a question that needs answering. Sometimes these questions are posed by a teacher or an assignment. But even if the prompt is more open, students should still keep the requirements in mind and make sure they're developing a project that falls within the range of acceptable subjects, lengths, and any other criteria.

I strongly recommend that whenever it's possible, students should try to ask and answer questions and pursue topics that spark their interests, because having an interest in a topic will not only make the writing process more enjoyable for the writer, it'll most likely improve the quality of the essay that comes out of it, and thus make for more enjoyable and informative reading as well.

Now, we've already mentioned that research starts with a question. In academia, we call these research questions. They are meaningful or debatable questions that a writer tries to answer through research and in writing. It's important to note that a research question is different from a topic and from a thesis. A single topic can generate multiple research questions, and a single research question can in turn inspire multiple thesis statements.

This is why it's important for the question to be meaningful or debatable, because there's no point in answering a question that no one cares about, or that we all already have the answer to. It's a good tactic for improving the meaningful and debatable nature of a question to avoid yes or no questions, and choose one that allows for more sophisticated and open-ended answers. So while yes and no questions can be good places to start developing a research question, it's important to go beyond the simplicity of the kinds of thesis statements these questions will raise.

Student writers should also aim for research questions that are narrow and specific enough that they could satisfactorily answer them within a single essay. And, just like a thesis, if the research question is too broad, they shouldn't be afraid to narrow or adjust it. Once you have a research question you'd like to answer, the working thesis that will drive the pre-writing step of the writing process is a proposed answer to that question. And the resulting argument is the development and support for that answer.

Often, you'll have to conduct some preliminary research based on your research question before you can really begin to build a working thesis and dive into the research full force. Usually, this preliminary research involves determining what's already known or believed about the question, in order to make it more meaningful, as well as to develop a more meaningful and debatable working thesis. After all, you wouldn't want to put in the work of building a defense for a point that, as you learn doing research, everyone else in the field already agrees upon and assumes is true, or even worse, has already rejected as irrelevant.

Now we're going to take the time to go through the preliminary steps of building research questions out of a given topic, as well as finding a working thesis that proposes to answer a debatable and meaningful question. Let's say that I'm a student in an introductory composition course. My professor has assigned a research paper on the subject of voting rights.

Now, after doing some brainstorming on the subject, I've come up with four questions. I'm not sure they're all really viable research questions, but still, let's take a look and see what we can or can't do with them. The first question I came up with is, how are votes counted?

This could be an interesting question to ask, but it's not debatable, is it? What argument could I possibly make from this? If the assignment had been to write an informative essay, this could be a useful question to work with. But for an academic research paper, it would be better to find another question. A question about something debatable would have to be more specific.

How about why we should or should not be using digital voting machines in light of recent hacking trouble? Or for another question, how about this one-- which is the purpose of citizenship? This is a meaningful question and is definitely debatable. But it'd be impossible to put forth and adequately support a thesis that answers it in just a few pages.

If I was writing a book about voting rights, an answer to this question could be a chapter or two, or even the whole book. But for this paper, I'd be better off finding a more specific question to work with. I could ask, for example, what citizenship means for people who have to earn it, and why they go through all the trouble.

Or how about this question-- why should the government support illegal immigrants? This is debatable and meaningful, but it's not really part of the assigned topic. It's related to it, but I'd be hard-pressed to justify going with this question when there are so many other possible research questions that are much more closely related to the assigned topic.

To bring it closer, I could have asked what the impact would be for making it easier to give non-citizens voting rights. This would not only bring the thesis statement closer to the assigned topic, it would also make for a more specific, focused research process. The last question I came up with is whether convicted criminals should be allowed to keep the right to vote.

This is more specific, and is both debatable and meaningful. But what answers could I come up with? There are two, right? Yes and no. I should probably find a way to rephrase this question, and make sure it allows for more nuanced and complicated answers-- answers that really get at not only the complexity of the issue, but my feelings and thoughts on the matter.

So, after a little more thinking, I came up with this. What are the social and ethical implications behind refusing criminals the right to vote? This is a question that I could really get into, forming a thesis that's researchable, debatable, and meaningful.

How about this working thesis, a proposed answer to the question? It's ultimately harmful to society to refuse those with convictions in their past the right to vote. In an essay arguing this point, I'd probably say that even though voting is not the most important civil right, at least not in terms of our day to day lives, it's symbolically important.

And so ultimately, the effect of refusing it to former convicts is to remind them that even after their punishment has been meted out, society has not forgiven them and will not accept them back, which is not only cruel, it also contributes to a return to criminal behavior. Now all I've got to do is start reading so I can write.

What did we learn today? We learned about how to begin the research process by thinking about questions worth answering. Then we learned how to build a thesis out of a research question, and we looked at examples of questions that were and were not worth researching. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Research Question

A meaningful or debateable question that one tries to answers through research and in writing.