Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Research Questions: Deconstructing to construct

Constructing a good research question is a challenging task for many students, and let's be honest, faculty and librarians. You need a good balance of broad concept and narrow focus. Of a question, whose question isn't immediately obvious and one you can actually answer. Depending on your research approach, either primary or secondary research, your question can vary widely. But when wielded deftly, it can be the key to unlocking research.

To help my students, especially those in intro-level courses, I've broken down the research question into its component pieces. My coworker and I identified 4 required parts, and 3 suggested extras or bonus features. The 4 pieces any basic research question needs? Question word, Action Verb, Topic, and Punctuation. The first and last of those are pretty self explanatory. Typically any research question that starts with how or why will be stronger and easier to create. Obviously your topic needs to go in the question somewhere. It seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how often students don't put their actual topic in the question anywhere.

The last piece is where some faculty and I differ. I want students writing research questions with action verbs. Too often I see students asking questions about how one thing "affects" another thing. Or "influences" or "changes" something. Impact is another of those. Those verbs mean very little outside the context of a question. They result in lazy questions. How did Hurricane Katrina impact the people of New Orleans? Um. Impact how? Politically? Psychologically? Economically? Physically? Using an action verb requires more thinking, but ultimately gets to a more complex question. How did Hurricane Katrina illuminate long standing racial issues in New Orleans and the nation at large? See, action verb with a stronger question. (I also get away with this because my liaison areas are in the social sciences where this structure works!)

But you don't have to stop there. You can add a sub-topic, or adjectives, or even a type of cause and effect. These aren't required, but the more of those you add, the narrower your focus becomes. I've worked with students by showing them a series of research questions and having them identify the parts. Or showing them a poor question and having them help me rewrite it using the chart above. So far, it's lead to much better research questions.

The next step is getting from your research question to a thesis. I like modeling this with students. It also illustrates the importance of these questions. A good question helps you decide what resources and research is important. It guides how you read those resources. And it also leads directly to your thesis. Your thesis ought to be the answer to your research question. That's why you can't ask a question about the future unless you're doing the experiment yourself. You have to be able to answer it using the research/resources available to you.

One last thing about thesis statements I like to tie into my research question lessons.

Becky's 3 Rules of Thesis Statements

  1. It must be a declarative statement. No questions marks here.
  2. It must answer your research question.
  3. You must be able to prove it using evidence.
That's it. Three simple rules to help guide students toward efficient and productive research.  How do you teach research questions? Do you? Or do you focus topics in a different way?

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