5 Academic inquiry and developing a research question

Nic Learned

Academic inquiry and developing a research question

College is about learning to create knowledge for the benefit of oneself and others.

So how is that knowledge created? In one word, discourse. Discourse means “conversation,” though knowledge-creating conversations are slightly different than conversations that people might have about, say, which fast food restaurant has the best chicken sandwich. Academic discourse, in particular, is a conversation that takes place through research over time: a researcher learns what previous researchers have said argued about a particular topic and then responds through research of their own.

The goal of that research is to move beyond what is already known. Explorers seek uncharted lands. Astronomers point their telescopes to unstudied galaxies. Food critics taste chicken sandwiches that others have yet to review.

These are examples of inquiry—of researchers developing useful questions and looking for the gaps in our collective knowledge. What questions remain unanswered? What controversies have yet to be settled?

As a college student, you will be expected to research this way. Your audiences will know a lot about the existing scholarship on your topic, and they will want to know what YOU have to contribute.

Producing this insight will require that you first develop questions to guide your research. This is easier said than done, since not all research questions are effective. Some help you to contribute meaningfully to the conversations taking place around your topic, while others make it hard to do so.

Further, since research questions work best when connected to existing research, you will likely need to revise and refine your research question in response to the sources you find. In this way, academic inquiry, like the writing process, is recursive, or “characterized by recurrence or repetition” (Bing Dictionary). You might begin with one research question in mind, but after consulting your sources, you might think of other questions, other avenues of inquiry. The end result of your research might even be to produce a new research question or a recommendation for how the conversation taking place among researchers of your topic ought to proceed.

In this chapter, you will learn how to craft questions that will guide your research and that will, ultimately, position you to generate insight into your topic.


1. The benefits of learning inquiry

Learning academic inquiry takes effort; is it worth it?

Here are some of the benefits:

    • Employers covet the kinds of skills associated with inquiry: critical thinking, research ability, information literacy, the ability to analyze complex issues, the ability to adapt to new contexts, and intellectual curiosity (Justice et al.)
    • Inquiry-based research teaches you to behave as a practitioner—as a person in the field who doesn’t simply learn about things, but actually does them (Lazonder and Harmsen. Padeste et al.). Further, research shows that inquiry-based learning transfers to other courses and other non-academic situations (Lazonder and Harmsen, Hmelo-Silver).
    • Inquiry-based research allows you to connect what you’re learning to your own interests and to have a say in what you’re learning and writing about (Justice et al., Blessinger et al., Hmelo-Silver).

2. How to develop a research question

A research question determines the quality and nature of the work that flows from it, so spending an extra few minutes at this stage can make a big difference later. That said, a research question should continue to evolve and grow throughout the research writing process, so it should be regarded as fluid rather than fixed.

Also, you are striving to develop new knowledge and insight—not to simply learn repeat what your instructor says—so your instructors will play a different role than what you might be used to. They will serve as “research animators” (Justice et al.), assisting your journey through the research process by providing skills and necessary support along the way, so don’t hesitate to seek them out if and when you get stuck.

Finally, remember that inquiry is recursive, which means that it is cyclical, though the steps don’t always proceed in a particular order, and you may find it necessary to repeat some steps multiple times:

A. Read the assignment carefully. This is key for succeeding at any college-level writing assignment, but it is especially important at early stages because your inquiry sets the trajectory of the project. Pay extra close attention to the following:

        • How many sources the assignment requires: The best research questions are clear and focused, but your question will need to be broad enough to allow you to find the number of sources you need given the time and resources available. At times, you may need to experiment with your question in order to find enough sources, though resist the temptation to switch topics if you don’t find sources right away—research usually takes time, and rest assured that there is research on just about everything!
        • What kinds of sources your project needs (academic sources, news articles, other non-scholarly sources, etc.): Think about what kind of research you’d have to do to answer a particular question, and make sure the question points you toward the kind of sources required in the assignment. For example, the question “What are people saying about Harry Potter?” calls for research into popular sources such as book reviews, while the question, “What literary devices are used in Harry Potter?” calls for research into academic sources.
        • What kinds of actions you are asked to perform in the final assignment: Note words like “analyze,” “interpret,” “argue,” etc., and make sure that your research question positions you to perform those actions. For example, “What are the benefits of stem cell research?” calls for a report-style essay, while “Should stem cell research be legal?” calls for an argument, and “How is the issue of stem cell research being discussed?” calls for analysis. If you’re ever unsure about your question, it’s never a bad idea to bounce your question off of your instructor or a tutor at the Composition and Literature Center.

B) Consider your personal connection to the topic. Ultimately, your research project should be useful to others, but it should also be interesting to you!

If your course has a central theme or essential question, then reflect on your personal connections to the course topic by journaling or taking notes on relevant experiences—the more detailed the better. Often, these observations can also prove useful when it comes to critically-engaging your sources.

And if your research direction is up to you, avoid cliche topics in favor of those that are relevant to your academic or career goals or personal experiences. For example, “steroid use in sports” might sound like a safe research topic, but if you enjoy gaming with your friends, you’ll likely be much more successful researching the role of gaming in social relationships. Know also that there is academic research that explores almost every dimension of human experience, so it’s likely that you can find sources and contribute to knowledge about just about any topic, though you may need to consult your instructor or research librarian for guidance.

Finally, it helps to know whether it makes sense, according to the purpose of the assignment, to incorporate personal experience in the final draft of your research essay: some scholars do not write about their experiences in their academic work, though others do so in really engaging and effective ways!


C) Brainstorm sub-issues pertaining to your topic that might be suitable for research: A great way to explore the possibilities that your project presents is to make a mind map: on a piece of paper or notebook, write your topic in the center. Then, around your topic, make note of the various sub-topics that are relevant to your topic. You might also try this same strategy with your research question, posing questions pertaining to the original question. This strategy can help you develop the kinds of specific, focused, and sophisticated questions that will best help you succeed in your essay.


D) Identify enigmatic aspects of your topic. The qualities of a good research question are very similar to those of good discussion questions; questions that require complex answers or that can be argued from multiple perspectives are the best conversation-starters and drive the most sophisticated and successful research writing. For example, the question, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” might not be a perfect question for academic research, but it is thought-provoking and debatable.


E) Identify sites of controversy among your sources. What debates about your topic can you find within sources, and how might they shape your research question? You may even find that different sources present differing perspectives or arguments about your question. This step requires first consulting at least some of your sources but remember that your research question or inquiry should evolve and grow throughout the research process.

Remember also that in academic discourse, we’re looking for what is not yet known , so while it might feel safe to steer your project towards areas where your sources agree, it actually makes more sense to target the areas of contention. You can also look for lacunae—or gaps in research—to suggest and direct subsequent research.


F) Develop a question that is informed. Again, your research question will need to evolve as you work your way through the research process, but your inquiry should reflect at least a little understanding of your topic and, possibly, the prevailing arguments or research taking place around that topic. Whereas you might start out with a fairly simple question like, “What are the effects of humor,” you might revise it after doing some research to something more sophisticated like, “What are the effects of divisive humor in workplace situations?”


Note: occasionally, we researchers don’t find sources that respond to our initial research questions. Don’t give up too easily! If you find yourself in this predicament, seek help from your instructor or research librarian—often, they can provide a few tweaks to your search strategy to help you locate the relevant scholarship.

3. Checklist for evaluating/revising research questions

Here are criteria for evaluating your research question: Your research question/inquiry should…

  • Target controversy or some point of contention among sources
  • Be relevant or interesting to you, personally
  • Require critical thinking
    • Not simply position you to argue something that you already think (as in, “What makes chicken wings the best food?”)
  • Allow for complex, debatable answers
    • Not be a yes/no, either/or question
    • Not necessarily have a clear right or wrong answer—or at least, not a simple one that is easily-reached
  • Be focused and specific
  • Be answerable through scholarly research
    • Not be purely fact-based (as in, “What is the population of Australia?”) or easily answered through a Google search (though of course facts DO have a role to play in research!)
  • Not pose a question to the reader (as in, “What do you think is the best way to address homelessness?”)

4. You’ve finished your research project; now what?

Often, learning about a topic leads to even more questions, so you might think about continuing the work you did in the following ways:

  • Build on your inquiry in other classes/contexts. This might feel like cheating—and it is, if you don’t add significantly to the work you’ve already done, and if you don’t get your instructor’s permission beforehand. But it is actually common practice for students and scholars to continue pursuing a research interest in other classes, and it makes a lot of sense to do so. There may be additional aspects of your question that you did not get to write about or directions that you did not get to research that it will make sense to explore. Just be sure to clear it with your instructor first.


  • Think about acting on your findings. If you feel that your project has produced insight that might be helpful or applicable in some way, act on it! For example, if your project has convinced you that gaming improves social cohesion, you might start a gaming club on campus.


  • Reflect on your learning process. One of the benefits of inquiry identified in Section 1 is that it develops your self-awareness, a quality that can improve your learning in general and also make you a more effective professional and citizen in your post-college life. Once your project is complete, reflect on HOW you learned what you learned—which strategies proved useful, which areas you struggled with, and how you navigated the various processes of producing knowledge, insight, or perspective about your topic—and remember those lessons in future contexts.



5. Key Takeaways

1) The process of inquiry is recursive, and its aim is to generate new knowledge—for yourself and others.


2) Inquiry-based research positions you as an active participant in the learning process, giving you say in what you learn and helping you develop skills that will serve you in academic and professional contexts.


3) In research writing, developing a research question can be tricky at first, but because the question plays a large role in the trajectory and quality of the work that follows, it’s worth a spending a little extra time to make sure you get it right.


4) Make sure your question is suitable for what is required in the assignment. If you’re ever unsure, ask your instructor!


5) Some general qualities of good research questions:

  • Clear and focused
  • Debatable
  • Target sites of controversy among sources
  • Can be responded to through academic research
  • Relevant to you—personally, professionally, etc.


6) In most academic contexts, it’s important to clearly-state your inquiry at some point in your essay.


7) Academic essays don’t typically “solve” their research questions; instead, research usually continues, perhaps in response to new questions that emerge. Similarly, finishing your project doesn’t have to mean the end of your inquiry; it’s okay and can even be productive to build upon your research in other classes and/or contexts (just be sure to clear it with your instructor so it doesn’t look like you’re turning in the same project for a different class!).



Works cited

Blessinger, Patrick, John M. Carfora, and Arshad Ahmad. Inquiry-Based Learning for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators. vol. 2, Emerald, Bingley, England, 2014.

Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-Based Learning: What and how do Students Learn?” Educational Psychology Review, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 235-266.

Justice, Christopher, et al. “Inquiry-Based Learning in Higher Education: Administrators’ Perspectives on Integrating Inquiry Pedagogy into the Curriculum.” Higher Education, vol. 58, no. 6, 2009, pp. 841-855

Lazonder, Ard W., and Ruth Harmsen. “Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning: Effects of Guidance.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 86, no. 3, 2016, pp. 681-718.

Levy, Brett L. M., et al. “Examining Studies of Inquiry-Based Learning in Three Fields of Education: Sparking Generative Conversation.” Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 64, no. 5, 2013, pp. 387-408.

Pedaste, Margus, et al. “Phases of Inquiry-Based Learning: Definitions and the Inquiry Cycle.” Educational Research Review, vol. 14, 2015, pp. 47-61.

“Recursive.” Bing Dictionary, Bing.com. https://www.bing.com/search?q=define+recursive. Accessed 3 November, 2021.


 Note: Student quotes and photographs used with written permission.