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Composition 2 - Johnstown Campus: Research questions

This guide was developed for English Composition 2 classes at the Johnstown campus

Why use a research question?

You may be used to thinking in terms of topics or thesis statements for research papers. The benefit of using a research question to begin your research is that it gives focus and direction to your project. You're looking for answers.

Types of questions - closed- and open-ended

Who, what, when, and where type questions are closed-ended questions, which result in simple answers. These tend to make poor research questions, but they may be necessary for filling in knowledge gaps along the way.

Why and how type questions are open-ended, and much more likely to result in essay length answers.


Finding Background Information

Chances are that you are not yet an expert on your topic.  This means you probably aren't sure how to begin searching for books and articles yet.  No worries!  Pitt has several online reference products that you can use to get more information before you start the nitty-gritty research.  You can access these products from on- and off-campus.

If you are writing a persuasive or argumentative paper or speech, Points of View Reference Center and CQ Researcher will be especially helpful. These resources not only provide a broad overview of a topic, but they also present both sides of the arguments.  When you are constructing your argument, you will need to know what the opposing argument is in order to discredit it.  This is an important, yet often overlooked, part of writing persuasive and argumentative papers!

Using PittCat+ for reference

image illustrating the written steps listed below

You can also get reference material directly from PITTCat+. Simply do a search, then click on the More... link under CONTENT TYPE in the left-hand column. Find the Reference link in the Content Type list, select it and then click the Apply button. This will filter your results to only display reference material.

Research question exercise

A good topic

  • is meaningful to you
  • requires several types of sources to address
  • is researchable

A research question meets all these criteria, PLUS it's manageable, which means

  • It is neither too broad nor too narrow given the time and length of your assignment.
  • There are sufficient academic/scholarly sources available to use.

Background information

If you just have a general idea for a topic, it may help to get some background information to help you refine it into something you can research. There is further information in the adjacent column.

Focusing a topic

It is not unusual for people to start out with topics that are too broad for manageable research. Suppose we're using this as a topic:

Human Rights

That's certainly too broad.

Do some brainstorming and write down anything and everything you can think of related to the topic.

Share your ideas with the people next to you. It often helps to talk about ideas and get additional input. Look at your lists and identify some issues related to your topics. An issue is a "point of discussion, debate, or dispute" - something you can take a position on.

Again working with the people next to you, look at your lists, share your ideas, pick the issue that looks most promising and write down questions about it – as many questions as you can come up with about it.

From your list, pick out the most promising questions.