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Information Literacy Modules

Forming Your Research Question


Women doing research

(Molly Fuller Abbott, Wikimedia Commons Image, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Research is a key step in most of the major assignments of your college classes, and in many careers. However, many have trouble knowing where to start. Never fear! This module will assist you in taking the first steps towards completing a project with as little pain as possible. You'll learn how to choose a topic, generate questions related to that topic, broaden and narrow that topic, and identify key concepts and terms in your topic area. No sense waiting any longer, let's jump right in!

Learning Outcomes

After completing this module, you will be able to: 

  • Select an effective research topic,
  • Generate questions related to a research topic,
  • Apply simple techniques to broaden or narrow a research topic, and
  • Identify key concepts and terms that apply to a given topic area.

The Basics

What is research? Well, according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, it is:

re·search: NOUN: 1. a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding.

This definition covers many different activities involved in your information search, and oftentimes these activities overlap with one another.

Research type

Essential characteristics

1. Find the population of each country in Africa or the total (in dollars) of Japanese investment in the U.S. in 2002.

A search for individual facts or data. May be part of the search for the solution to a larger problem or simply the answer to a bar bet. Concerned with facts rather than knowledge or analysis and answers can normally be found in a single source.

2. Find out what is known generally about a fairly specific topic. "What is the history of the Internet?"

report or review, not designed to create new information or insight but to collate and synthesize existing information. A summary of the past. Answers can typically be found in a selection of books, articles, and Web sites.
[Note: gathering this information may often include activities like #1 above.]

3. Gather evidence to determine whether gang violence is directly related to playing violent video games.

Gathering and analyzing a body of information or data and extracting new meaning from it or developing unique solutions to problems or cases. This is "real" research and requires an open-ended question for which there is no ready answer.
[Note: this will always include #2 above and usually #1. It may also involve gathering new data through experiments, surveys, or other techniques.]

But, even before you begin to develop your question or perform any of these activities, you want to keep these bits of advice in mind:

1. Understand the assignment. A misread/misunderstood prompt can sink even the best written project or paper, since it leads to inappropriate sources or conclusions. Ask your instructor if you have questions, it's what they're here for!

2. Select a topic that interests you. A project on a topic that does not catch your interest is not only a slog to complete, but a bore to present. In contrast, some of the most fun presentations come when the person presenting obviously loves the material. Try to keep that in mind when choosing a topic!

3. If possible, select a topic you are already researching for another project. If you're doing a project on the mechanics of stem cell research for one class, you can use most of that material for your paper on the ethics of stem cell research in another. You need to understand the mechanics to argue ethics, after all. This way, you can really dig into the meat of a topic and greatly enhance your understanding.

4. Select a topic that is not likely to be chosen by others. Having to read 15-30 papers on the same two or three topics is the bane of any professor's grading. Simply giving them something different to read gives you an advantage, but remember to choose a topic appropriate to the assignment!

So, now that we've covered the basics, the next step is choosing a topic. How do you do that? By taking your topic and formulating questions, which is the focus of the next section.

Generating Questions

To even begin to research, you must have questions that you would like to investigate or answer. Such as, if your topic is stem cell research: What is it? What does it entail? What are the supposed benefits or pitfalls? Is this ethical? etc. You can use the topic of your project to generate these questions, and therefore make a rather complex topic area much easier to manage. A question, after all, has an answer, can be be used as a method to know when you've found enough information, and requires you to put your critical thinking and research skills to real use.

However, that does beg a question of its own: How do you do this? There are, in fact, many techniques that can be used in this way, but this module will focus on two of them: brainstorming and concept mapping.


In this method of question development, you list any and all thoughts that come to mind about your topic. Any mental filters should be turned off, and it does not have to make coherent sense. Once you have finished free associating, look through your list and sort related words and concepts together. This is a very good method of determining the angles your investigation could take or aspects you may not have considered before.

Concept Mapping

This method works by placing your topic area in the middle of the map, and then branching related concepts, knowledge, and questions from it. This is helpful when you want to inventory your own knowledge of a topic or keep your thoughts organized. Truthfully, it may be helpful for you to brainstorm, and then use the concept map as a way to see what questions can be gleaned from your work.

Both of these methods can help you determine questions for your topic. But, what happens if the questions you come up with are too broad or too narrow? The next sections will provide the answers.


A common problem among novice researchers is that they may find very few--if any--sources for their topic. If this happens, you have probably made your question a bit too narrow. Luckily, you can save yourself a headache by broadening your question, and oftentimes you'll uncover much more to work with.

The examples below show how you can broaden your question without completely changing the meaning. If, on the other hand, you go overboard and go too broad, the next section will cover the narrowing technique.


Should Makah whaling rituals be permitted despite endangered species laws?


Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?


What are the economic impacts of sweat shops on development in South Asia?


What are the impacts of U.S. labor practices on developing countries?


The last section discussed solutions to the problem of a too narrow topic. However, what happens if your question goes too far in the opposite direction--that is, it's too broad? Something must be done, or you might actually drown in the number of potential sources. The easiest solution to this problem involves taking your topic, in this case "Internet Security", and asking clarifying questions based on certain factors, as outlined by the box below. For instance, asking about how economic and political systems--which pertain to the "Place" factor--affect Internet security can lead you to describing the U.S's policies and initiatives. If done right, this will be a great help in selecting the perfect topic for your project.



Example Topic: Internet Security

Time  time

Since 1990? This year? In the future?

Current Internet security initiatives.

Place globe

Local social norms & values, economic & political systems, or languages.

Internet security initiatives in the U.S

Population man and woman

Gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, species, etc.

Filtering software and children's' access to Internet pornography

Viewpoint eye

Social, legal, medical, ethical, biological, psychological, economic, political, philosophical? A viewpoint allows you to focus on a single aspect.

The constitutionality of Internet filtering technology

 (All images in table belong to the University of Idaho.)

Choosing Keywords

Now that you've selected a topic, what's next? Actually searchingfor the information you need; and these days, that will most often be done online, on a search engine or otherwise. Unfortunately, while search engines are very good at finding words entered into them, they are not very good at determining intent, decoding ambiguity, or reading your thoughts for what you really want to find. So, in order to locate what you need, you need to be very specific in your choice of search terms, also known as keywords or topic vocabulary.

When choosing keywords, try to boil down the essence of the topic into a few words or a short phrase. Leave out articles like a, an and the, as well as prepositions like of or to. See the box below for more.

Example Explanation
"media coverage of 9/11" Media cover events. Unless the media caused the event, this term is unnecessary.
advantages of home schooling over public schools Value words like "favorite," "advantage," or "better" are not useful if you need to gather evidence to help you make a decision or develop a solution. Don't just grab an opinion or the "right" answer off someone else's shelf.
dissertations about bioethics Many databases and search engines are programmed to ignore common words that don't impact a search. These are called "stopwords" and typically include terms like "the," "from," "about," "when," etc.


Check out this video on choosing keywords to help you understand their importance:

(University of North Carolina Libraries, 2014, CC BY-NC-SA)

Broadening and Narrowing/Vocabulary


The two earlier sections focused on broadening and narrowing topic questions. However, the same techniques can be used on topic vocabulary as well. Using an example from a previous section, we can examine this more closely:

"Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?"

Keywords Broader Related Narrower
Native Americans Indigenous peoples, North American history Indians, Amerinds, North American Indians Makah, Nez Perce, Cherokee, Kwakiutl, etc.
Customs Social systems, anthropology, Marriage, social relations, spirituality, rites and ceremonies,
religion, culture
Lodge house(s), hunting, whaling, potlatch, etc.
Law Criminal justice,
U.S. Constitution,
constitutional law
Legislation, crimes, treaty rights Bureau of Indian Affairs,
NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ),
cases (e.g. Kennewick Man, Neah Bay whaling)


As you can see, forming your research question might not be the first step you take when doing research--you might have to do some preliminary research, brainstorm, and ask questions in order to refine your research question. And remember, you can always refine your research question as you find out more!   


The content for this module was drawn from the following sources:

Cabrillo College. (n.d.). Information literacy course in Canvas.

RESEARCH: Definition in the Cambridge English dictionary. (n.d.).

University of North Carolina Libraries.  (2014, July 9). One perfect source?

University of Toledo Libraries. (2020, March 13). Quality teaching & learning: Information literacy in Blackboard.


Try these simple steps for finding and using Limiters in a database to Broaden or Narrow a journal article search:

    1. Open your library's website and click on their Databases page. Choose Academic Search Complete which is an EBSCOhost database. 
    2. Search for the term American Dream, or any search term of your choice. 
    3. Find the words Subject Terms in the blue bar at the top of the screen.
    4. Click on Subject Terms; the screen displays additional terms that can be added to your current search to Narrow the search. 
    5. Select one or two additional terms, add the terms to your current searchand click Search.
    6. How did the results change by adding additional terms to the search?

The search can be Broadened by removing words. Choose one of the search terms from the current search, delete the term, and Search again. How did the results change?

  1. Find the Limit To option (left side)
  2. Click in the box next to the words Scholarly Peer Reviewed Journals. The results screen will automatically update.
  3. How do the results change when the Scholarly Peer Review Journals Limit To option is used?

Using Limiters:

  1. Go back to the Limit To box and choose one or two of the other options such as the EBSCO Full Text Only or the Publication Date slide bar.
  2. Do some experimental searches with both Limiters. How do the search results change with each Limiter? 
  3. Now remove the Limiters. What happens to the results without the Limiters?  

Write up a summary about the three ways the results changed and submit it to complete the assignment.

(Thanks to the University of Toledo for creating and sharing this activity!)


Creative Commons License

All of the PALNI Information Literacy Modules are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.