Chances are you’ve been asking research questions for as long as you can remember. They might not have been as strong as a level-three research question, but you’ve likely asked how things work, why the world is the way it is, and how one thing affects another. These are all budding research questions waiting to be developed into a fully-fledged essay. Most importantly, many, many essays can answer that question in different ways.
Writing a Good Research Question
A good research question is open-ended without being too open-ended. I’ll get to what that means in a second. A research question, therefore, requires you to find one answer to it. (Tip: a good research question should at least three answers to it.)
Getting overwhelmed? Here’s a visual:
- Level One: The question has a clear answer that you’d likely already know.
- For example: “What does the Apple logo look like?” (I know I gave you a hint in the question, but you get the idea.)
- Level Two: The question has one answer that you’d need to look up.
- For example: “When was Google founded?”
- Level Three: The question has at least three answers (three or more) and there’s no clear “right” answer. In other words, each answer could be considered the strongest based on the evidence that supports it.
- For example: “What are the effects of the Greenhouse Gas Effect on the Earth’s climate?”
- Level Four: The question has an endless amount of answers. This type of question are far too broad to cover in one essay (or dissertation).
- For example: “What is the meaning of life?”
Pop Quiz: Which level of question are we aiming for when writing a research essay?
If you said Level Three, you’d be correct. A Level Three research question is perfect for research. This type of question can be fully argued within the scope of an essay no matter how long it needs to be. A Level Three research question doesn’t have a “right” answer and depends entirely on the argument points and evidence supporting it. The most important step of developing a research question, and by far the most overlooked, is narrowing your question.
Narrowing your research question is typically the hardest for students because students can generally avoid a research question that has fewer than three answers. However, the difference between Level Three and Level Four is much more difficult to apply to your own research question. Before we get too deep into narrowing your research question, let’s begin with how you start a research question.
Most of the time, you’ll want to start with “How,” “Why,” or some version of “What are the effects.” I recommend these options because they rarely lead to Level One or Level Two options; they get your brain thinking in the right way. Why don’t we try it?
We will start with a “How” question and make it a Level Three research question.
Let’s take this example: “How does the electoral college operate?”
This is a level two question (unless you can explain it off the top of your head). So, how can we change it to make it Level Three? First of all, let’s complicate it a little. Instead of focusing on the factual information—how the electoral college works—let’s focus on how the electoral college affects the United States.
Let’s try this: “How does the electoral college impact elections?”
What do you think? It’s getting closer to becoming a research question; now, we need to do the infamous job of “narrowing”. When we look at the question, let’s point out all of the general terms that we can make more specific. In this case, I’d say we can get “impact” and “elections” more specific.
The question becomes: “How does the electoral college harm presidential elections?”
Before we fall into the trap of calling this done because it is a Level Three question, let’s imagine we’re writing this essay. We want this essay to be valuable and we want our contribution to be thorough, so we should narrow our timeline down too.
How about: “How has the electoral college harmed the past three presidential elections?”
This question is a strong place to start, and you might limit it as you begin researching and finding what interests you to write. You might decide that you want to focus on a certain demographic like “How has the electoral college disadvantaged Black Americans during the past three presidential elections?” Or you might choose a slightly different niche to focus on. This is all okay because you need to explore to know what you want to write about. So, if you know you have a research essay coming up and you’re nervous about it, start early. Plus, you could always get some help from me.