IRW 115 - Fierman Spring '21: Researchable Question

Guide for Danica Fierman's IRW 115 class

Turning an Interest into a Research Question

In this video, you’ll learn how to turn something you find interesting into a researchable question for a college research project.

Narrow Your Topic to a Research Question

Almost any broad topic you find interesting will work for starting your research.  As part of the research process, you will explore this broad topic and find a focused issue within that topic that will work well for your academic research project. Examples:

Broad topic:  music
Focused topic: What is the effect of music on learning in elementary school children?

Broad topic:  vegetarianism
Focused topic:  How does a vegetarian diet affect global warming?

Broad topic:  extraterrestrial life
Focused topic: What evidence have astrobiologists found about the indicators of life in outer space?

Plan to take some time exploring your topic, and to be flexible about what your final research question will be.  You may find that you will change your focus as you learn more about your topic and find new angles that interest you.

The library database SIRS Knowledge Source provides a method of drilling down from a broad, general topic to a specific one. Scroll down to the Browse all Pro/Con issues section to see the general subject areas and then click on one to view the more specific topics associated with it.

Sometimes mapping out the ideas and key concepts within your topic can help you narrow to a focused research question. This video will show you how to map your way to a focused question. You can also click here to see an example of a concept map done on a computer.

What is an Academic Research Question?

Your instructor may require you to start your project with a tentative academic research question.  What makes a research question academic?

  • The topic is one that has been written about in newspapers, journal articles, and/or books.
  • Scholars, scientists or other researchers or academics have studied and discussed this question.
  • The question is complex enough that it requires more than a simple answer.
  • The question is focused and narrow.

If a question is only discussed on web sites, television shows and popular magazines, it probably is not an academic question.  However, you may be able to find an academic question related to a popular topic.  Examples:

Non-academic question: Is  Beyoncé's Lemonade the best album ever?   
Academic question:  Should Beyoncé be considered a feminist role model?

Non-academic question:  What types of tattoos are the coolest?
Academic questionShould employers be permitted to ban display of tattoos by employees?

Examples of academic research questions:

  • How does birth order of siblings affect personality?
  • What is the relationship between high fructose corn syrup and childhood obesity?
  • Is marijuana really a "gateway" drug?
  • What is the effect of social media such as Facebook on attention span?
  • Has a college degree become so expensive it is no longer worth its cost?

Topic ideas, examples and process

Visit this guide for some possible topics as well as the process for turning an idea into something researchable:

Paper topic ideas guide

Some example ideas from this guide include:

  • COVID-19
  • Extreme weather
  • Smartphone addition
  • Homelessness in Portland

and more.