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Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples

Published on October 26, 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 21, 2023.

A research question pinpoints exactly what you want to find out in your work. A good research question is essential to guide your research paper , dissertation , or thesis .

All research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly

Writing Strong Research Questions

Table of contents

How to write a research question, what makes a strong research question, using sub-questions to strengthen your main research question, research questions quiz, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research questions.

You can follow these steps to develop a strong research question:

  • Choose your topic
  • Do some preliminary reading about the current state of the field
  • Narrow your focus to a specific niche
  • Identify the research problem that you will address

The way you frame your question depends on what your research aims to achieve. The table below shows some examples of how you might formulate questions for different purposes.

Using your research problem to develop your research question

Note that while most research questions can be answered with various types of research , the way you frame your question should help determine your choices.

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Research questions anchor your whole project, so it’s important to spend some time refining them. The criteria below can help you evaluate the strength of your research question.

Focused and researchable

Feasible and specific, complex and arguable, relevant and original.

Chances are that your main research question likely can’t be answered all at once. That’s why sub-questions are important: they allow you to answer your main question in a step-by-step manner.

Good sub-questions should be:

  • Less complex than the main question
  • Focused only on 1 type of research
  • Presented in a logical order

Here are a few examples of descriptive and framing questions:

  • Descriptive: According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented?
  • Descriptive: Which countries have a bank tax/levy on financial transactions?
  • Framing: How should a bank tax/levy on financial transactions look at a European level?

Keep in mind that sub-questions are by no means mandatory. They should only be asked if you need the findings to answer your main question. If your main question is simple enough to stand on its own, it’s okay to skip the sub-question part. As a rule of thumb, the more complex your subject, the more sub-questions you’ll need.

Try to limit yourself to 4 or 5 sub-questions, maximum. If you feel you need more than this, it may be indication that your main research question is not sufficiently specific. In this case, it’s is better to revisit your problem statement and try to tighten your main question up.

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Methodology

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

The way you present your research problem in your introduction varies depending on the nature of your research paper . A research paper that presents a sustained argument will usually encapsulate this argument in a thesis statement .

A research paper designed to present the results of empirical research tends to present a research question that it seeks to answer. It may also include a hypothesis —a prediction that will be confirmed or disproved by your research.

As you cannot possibly read every source related to your topic, it’s important to evaluate sources to assess their relevance. Use preliminary evaluation to determine whether a source is worth examining in more depth.

This involves:

  • Reading abstracts , prefaces, introductions , and conclusions
  • Looking at the table of contents to determine the scope of the work
  • Consulting the index for key terms or the names of important scholars

A research hypothesis is your proposed answer to your research question. The research hypothesis usually includes an explanation (“ x affects y because …”).

A statistical hypothesis, on the other hand, is a mathematical statement about a population parameter. Statistical hypotheses always come in pairs: the null and alternative hypotheses . In a well-designed study , the statistical hypotheses correspond logically to the research hypothesis.

Writing Strong Research Questions

Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement .

However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  • Researchability
  • Feasibility and specificity
  • Relevance and originality

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McCombes, S. (2023, November 21). Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/

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    A phenomenological example is, "What is it like for a mother to live with a teenage child who is dying of cancer?" (Nieswiadomy, 1993, p. 151). In grounded theory, the questions may be directed toward generating a theory of some process, such as the exploration of a process as to how caregivers and patients interact in a hospital setting.

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    1. Begin with "How" or "What". Avoid "Why"[this is a quantitative term that implies cause and effect] 2. List the central phenomenon you plan to explore 3. Identify the participants and research site Qualitative Central Question Script: What is (the central phenomenon) of/for (participants) at/in (research site)? Qualitative Examples:

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    • Ask yourself: - What subtopics relate to the broader topic? - What questions do these sources raise? - What do you find interesting about the topic? • Consider your audience. Who would be interested in the issue? Reference Sources Reference sources are a great place to begin your research. They provide:

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