What Makes a Good Research Question

To display the concept of subtraction in photography
An Art of Subtraction

In preparation to do my research, I first have to consider how to focus my time and energy, both of which are limited resources.  With that idea in mind, I can’t read all the literature on a given topic, but rather, I need to focus my attention.  In order to do that, I need to develop a strong research question that will narrow my field of vision.  With that idea in mind, two concepts to keep in mind while developing a good research question are…

  • Find a focused topic
  • Be Open-Ended

Find a Focused Topic

In order to point the efforts of my research in a specific direction, I need focus.  Booth, Colomb, Williams, Bizup, and Fitzgerald (2016), all university English professors, pointed out that “Without that focus, any evidence you assemble risks appearing to your readers as little more than a mound of random facts” (p.34). As I consider the idea of focus in a research question, I can’t help but compare it with photography, a subject with which I’m more familiar.  Photography is a subtractive art.  Our world is one filled with chaotic imagery and a skilled photographer understands that in order to capture a compelling image, one must remove the distractions and focus on a narrow field.  The photographer subtracts the majority of what is presented in order to isolate a specific image.  I see the development of a research question as a similar endeavour.  If I were to have interest in learning, for example, about the use of glass in architecture, there would be a mound of information to go through and I would spend far too much time coming to a vague conclusion.  Now, if I were to focus my attention instead on the use of stained glass in 15th century gothic architecture, I would have a much more narrow field of vision and my time spent researching would be far more productive.

Be Open Ended

Once you’ve determined your topic, you should narrow it down even further with a good open-ended question such as “How”, “What”, or “Why” (“What Makes,” 2014).  An open-ended question is important so that you don’t immediately hit a brick wall.  Again, I see a similarity with a technique I’ve used in my professional experience.  When conducting an interview for radio or television, it’s important that we stay away from asking “yes” or “no” questions.  If I were to ask my interviewee if they were having a good day, they may just answer “yes” or “no” and I’m back to asking another question without moving my program along.  If I had done my research beforehand and knew they were having a good day, I would do better by asking them to tell me why they were having a good day.  Now I’ll get a much more interesting and thoughtful response.  If I apply this technique to my example research topic established in the previous section, it could lead to an even more specific and thought provoking question.  My question, then, might be… How did the use of stained glass in 15th century gothic architecture impact religious ceremonies?  Now I’m getting somewhere…


Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., & FitzGerald, W. T. (2016). The Craft of Research, Fourth Edition (Fourth). University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226239873.001.0001

Duke Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. (2014). What makes a good research question?. Retrieved from https://sites.duke.edu/urgws/files/2014/02/Research-Questions_WS-handout.pdf

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Research Question”

  1. Chris, I enjoyed the way you fleshed out your (well referenced) points about what makes a good research question by comparing it to work you know. You made each point clear, compelling, and interesting.

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