Designing a Research Question

Generating Research Ideas

Choose a topic that is of genuine interest to you. If you’re unsure where to start, try doing some of the following to get some ideas.

  • Use the internet – see what’s been done by others before. 
  • Talk to friends and family. Are there any topics of special interest to your community? Any pressing or unmet needs?
  • Get inspired by things happening in your area.
  • Read up on current events (e.g., news, magazines, blogs).  
  • Borrow science supply catalogs (e.g., Carolina Biological / Flinn Scientific).
  • Consider what skills you already have that would be useful in conducting research. Are there other skills that you’d like to learn?
  • Find out what type of equipment might be available for use at home or at school.


Focusing Preliminary Topics

After you have a preliminary research topic, you will focus it to narrow down the scope of your inquiry to a testable question. Testable questions often begin with How, What, When, Who, or Which.

  • What entity will you study?
  • What can you manipulate or change
  • What effects can you measure?
  • What skills, knowledge and tools will you need?
  • Is your topic safe and ethically responsible to study?

Make sure you complete any safety training prior to starting theexperiment.

Follow all applicable guidelines for the proper handling of nonhuman vertebrates, human subjects, and biological hazards. If you plan to use human subjects under 18 years of age in your study, you must obtain consent from their parent/guardian.


Research Design

The structure of an experiment is called the research design. The design of the experiment helps determine the likelihood of success and reliability of results. 


The hypothesis is a tentative explanation for a connection between an observed phenomenon and what you want to test. Writing hypotheses to be tested through experiments and observations is central to doing research (Gordon 2007). By transforming your question into a hypothesis statement, you accomplish several critical research design steps.


In writing a hypothesis, you will

  • determine a specific variable to be tested
  • determine how changes within the experiment will be measured or recorded
  • predict an outcome of what you think the results of the experiment will be


Differences Between a Research Question and a Hypothesis

Question: What effect does temperature have on planaria reproduction?
Hypothesis: If the speed of planaria reproduction is related to temperature, then planaria in lower temperatures will reproduce more slowly than planaria in higher temperatures.

You should write your hypothesis after you do your preliminary research but before you begin your experiment.


How Do You Formulate a Good Research Question?

While a good research question allows the writer to take an arguable position, it DOES NOT leave room for ambiguity.


Checklist of Potential Research Questions in the Humanities (from the Vanderbilt University Writing Center):

  1. Is the research question something I/others care about? Is it arguable?
  2. Is the research question a new spin on an old idea, or does it solve a problem?
  3. Is it too broad or too narrow? (Testable questions often begin with How, What, When, Who or Which)
  4. Is the research question researchable within the given time frame and location?
  5. What information is needed?


Checklist of Research Question in the Sciences and Social Sciences

While all research questions need to take a stand, there are additional requirements for research questions in the sciences and social sciences. Specifically, they need to have reproducible outcomes. Unreliable data in the original research does not allow for a strong or arguable research question.


In addition, you need to consider what kind of problem you want to address. Is your research trying to accomplish one of these four goals?

  1. Can I define or measure a specific fact or gather facts about a specific phenomenon?
  2. Can I match facts and theory?
  3. Can I evaluate and compare two theories, models, or hypotheses?
  4. Can I prove that a certain method is more effective than other methods?


Moreover, the research question should define the experiment's variables and their relationships to one another. It should also state something about the testing of those relationships.


There are two types of data that can help shape research questions in the sciences and social sciences: quantitative and qualitative data. While quantitative data focuses on the numerical measurement and analysis between variables, qualitative data examines the social processes that give rise to the relationships, interactions, and constraints of the inquiry.


Writing After the Research Question

The answer to your research question should be your thesis statement. Keep in mind that you will most likely continue to refine your thesis statement as you conduct and write about your research. A good research question, however, puts you well on your way to writing a strong research paper.

Adapted from:
Vanderbilt University Writing Center
NSTA STEM Student Research Handbook