Formulating your research questions

Researching is iterative. Students start with a question based on a need for information, and as they find the first pieces of information, this question changes and becomes more complex, on its way to informing the thesis of their paper. As they research, it is essential to keep track of the information sources which contributed to both the definition of key terms, and to each turn in their perception of the topic.

The key to researching effectively is harnessing what they know about the topic to ask incisive questions, both of the texts they are reading, and of the information they already have. This is accomplished by reading critically: reading not just once for bare information, but repeatedly for insights having to do with how the topic is discussed. Part of critical reading is careful note-taking so that unique ideas may be attributed to their authors.

As students progress towards formulating a research question around which they can build their paper, they need to answer the following questions through their reading:

  • What is it I am researching? What is the formal definition of the key idea(s)? What do I need to meet the goal(s) of my assignment? Where do these ideas come from?
  • What types of issues arise within or around this topic? (Here, they integrate information from both the first reading and the subsequent critical readings of their sources.)
  • Can I arrange the basic information and the issues into categories from which I can draw when I formulate more search statements, and my thesis?

When students carry out further research in journal article databases (A-Z list at U of T), their search statements can then draw from the categories they have distilled from their critical reading. Because of the iterative nature of the research process, the terms in their categories, as well as the categories themselves, will change as a result of further information.