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Topic Selection and Sample Research Questions

The Research Question looks deeply into a subject for greater meaning.  It makes connections with prior learning and personal experiences.  It creates discussion and asks more questions, alternatives and/or justifies answers.  It can't be answered with a sentence or two. Unlike simple questions, research questions address big ideas such as concepts, themes, issues, debates, problems, challenges, processes, theories, paradoxes, assumptions, and different perspectives. 

These questions start with the words: How, What if, Should, To what extent or Why. Note: These take practice to learn how to write.  Don’t feel intimated.  Ask your teacher if you’re on the right track. (Chart from the From Golden Gate University Business Library.)

Background Information: Your First Sources

Background research is essential for understanding concepts, terms, events, places and people who shape this topic.  This knowledge base needs to be built before you start your formal research.  Use this information to broaden or narrow your topic, formulate research questions, and build keywords.  At this stage you really need only two or three short articles.  Don't print out ten articles or ones that are 20 pages long.  You may not need them and it may overwhelm you!

Good Beginning Sources:

General Encyclopedias:

A general encyclopedia like the Encyclopedia Britannica may be useful for basic facts and for a broad understanding of your topic.   If you feel that the information goes beyond superficial facts and will provide you with details you can use later in your project, you should print or save it to use later.

Online Databases and News Sources:

A subject-specific online database such as ABC-CLIO for social studies is a good choice for background information.  A news article can be useful if you are researching current events.  Use an article from a database, online, or from a print newspaper or magazine (ex. National Geographic Magazine,, Gale Group or Student Research Center). 

If you think you will use the information found in these sources in your research paper, you should print or save them to use later.  Be sure to cite them in


At this stage, it’s O.K. to Google your topic.  Since you are just trying to learn more about your topic, it’s permissible to do this.  Find a reputable website with basic facts.  This will not be your formal research.  However, if you happen to find an authoritative website that you think you may use later because it has quality information, you may want to print or save it to use later.  

Keep in mind: You may find student projects online or blogs like Answers.comDo not use them for your background or formal research.  They are not reputable because the authors are not reliable.

General Questions

When reading background information, begin writing some basic questions.  These questions can be answered with a yes or no, or a single sentence or two.  They address basic facts and information that you need to understand your topic.  This process will help clarify your thoughts and enable you to write your research question.  If you're stuck on how to get started, remember the 5Ws+H:  Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.