Research question

Most academic writing departs from some kind of query or problem, and the goal is to provide an answer or a solution the that query. In academic writing, such a point of departure is referred to as the research question. In students' writing, the research question could be a question that the teacher has presented or a question students have been asked to formulate themselves.

The research question will also depend on the type of task and the discipline. Importantly, it should not be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question but must be phrased in a way that allows for discussion, analysis, or description. In other words, the research question needs to be based on the kind of investigation, exploration or other type of study that the author carries out in connection with the writing.

Note that in more comprehensive essays and research articles, there may be several research questions which will be related ito each other. For instance, whereas a study as a whole will depart from an overall research question, each section of the written text can depart from related sub-questions.

How to draft and develop a research question

It is essential to formulate a tentative research question at an early stage during an essay or research project, but writers need to be open to the possibility that the research question often have to be revised as the project develops. Research questions are typically rather wide during the early stages of a project, initially perhaps even based on the writer’s assumptions rather than on the specific knowledge needed for the project at hand. Once the writer has read up on the topic and carried out experiments, field work or other types of data collection, the research question therefore often needs to be rephrased and made more specific. This process from a more general question to a more specific one is an important part of the research and writing process.

Below is an example of how the research question might develop through a student project.

In this example, a student who we call Lisa is taking a course in sustainability and innovation. In this course, students carry out individual projects that will result in  course papers. Lisa descides to explore ways in which students can grow their own vegetables without having access to a garden or even a balcony. Her initial research question looks like this:

  • What are the options for students wishing to grow their own vegetables?

After having conducted a literature search, Lisa realises that this research question is much too vague and too wide. After she has read up on the topic, she therefore concludes that the study needs to be narrowed down and she decides to focus on hydroponics, as this is a technique which research indicates has proven successful for indoor gardening in small spaces. With hydroponics she will also be able to focus on the specific angle of cultivation in student accommodations. Lisa's revised research question therefore reads,

  • How can hydroponic cultivation be implemented in a student dormitory?

Having thus narrowed down her research question, Lisa can use it as a starting point for the project. She will soon discover whether this research question might need to be broken down into sub-questions, and before her project is finished, she may very well have had to revise the question(s) again, depending on how the project develops.

Direct or indirect question?

In the writing process, research questions often start out as direct questions, as in the example above, but later in the research and writing process they need to be rephrased into indirect questions to form part of the running text. Whereas a direct question will usually start with a question word and end with a question mark, an indirect question is a statement in which the question has been embedded.

By phrasing the research question in the form of an indirect question, the writer clarifies the way in which the research question serves as a starting point for the research taks it addresses, for instance by indicating how the question will be answered.


Direct question: How can hydroponic cultivation be implemented in a student dormitory?

Indirect question: This essay will investigate how hydroponic cultivation can be implemented in a student dormitory.

Page Manager: aweluluse | 2024-04-24