From Specific Topic to a Research Question: What Do You Want
students sometimes are assigned general topics, such as the causes
of the Civil War or treatments for cancer, the best research writing
occurs when students research and write in order to answer a compelling
question, one they care about. They want to know why President
Lincoln refused to let the South secede or what alternative treatments,
if any, really can help cure cancer.
Imagine that you are asked to write a research paper on the
environment. If you want to do more than fill up the required
of pages with some facts, you will have to take control of this
assignment and decide what you want to learn within this very
broad topic. Turn on your curiosity and start asking questions
by brainstorming, as shown below:
What constitutes "the environment"?
What are some examples of environmental problems?
What laws have been enacted to protect the environment?
Are there environmental problems in cities?
What groups of people are most affected by environmental problems?
The last two questions above could lead you to the more specific
topic of who is most affected by urban environmental problems.
During your first, exploratory reading, you probably would come
across the term: environmental racism, and if you read some recent
articles, you also might learn that Hartford, CT is ringed by
trash incinerators that have been accused of damaging the urban
air quality and contributing to an unusually high rate of asthma
among disadvantaged children who live in this city. These ideas
and your growing interest could lead you to pose the following
To what degree are disadvantaged people of color, who
often live in urban areas, victims of environmental racism, and
if such discrimination exists, what should be done?
Note that a research question creates a reason and a direction
for research without predicting a particular answer. Your main
question should be not be so focused (Why should environmental
racism be eliminated?), that it leads to one sided research in
which a student tries to prove an initial opinion and avoids every
complexity (such as zoning laws, cleanup costs, and other factors
of health problems). Rather than gathering enough facts to fill
the required number of pages or reach a forgone conclusion, researching
to answer a compelling question and writing to assert your informed
opinion is much more satisfying.
For more on posing research questions,
see Chapter Two of Bruce Ballenger's The Curious Researcher.