How do I come up with a question?

Feeling nervous? That's normal. Here's how one student summarized it:

I have difficulty narrowing down a workable idea. I guess I'm afraid of being locked into an idea, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do if this idea ends up failing and does not work for me?' So I think it's the anticipation, nervousness type thing that scares me in step one. Which is ironic because it's the beginning, it's what you have to do to get started. So I have a lot of difficulty with that sometimes.

Head, A. J., Eisenberg, M. B. (2010). Truth be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. Project Information Literacy Progress Report. Retrieved from

There is no single way to come up with a research question. Sometimes a question just comes to you - but often you have to do some brainstorming.

Different types of research questions

The difference between a topic and question is that a question goes somewhere. Here are some different types of research questions:

Causal Does X cause Y?
Relational Are X and Y related?
Solution-focused Can we achieve X by doing Y?
Comparative How is X different from Y?
Exploratory Is it possible to build X?
Descriptive Who or what is X?
librarian Librarian tip

Sometimes your assignment will ask you to simply describe something – who or what is X? However, for library research, questions are typically more interesting when they explain why or how.

Getting specific

A great way to brainstorm related questions is to use the who, what, where, when approach. Brainstorm as many words as you can think of for each of these categories.

example Example: LGBT rights in Asia

Who: LGBT community (children, adolescents, adults, men, women), the media, the government, the police force, activists, teachers, religious organizations, etc.

What: Rights, policies/laws, abuses, discrimination, awareness campaigns, housing, health care, etc.

Where: Asia, South-east Asia, India, China, etc.

When: Now, the 1970s, etc.

Now, choose three items from your list and turn them into a question:

  • How have awareness campaigns for LGBT rights influenced the media in India?
  • Why has the government not created policies to protect LGBT rights in China?

Too broad or too narrow?

It will not always be easy to determine if your topic is "just right," meaning that it is neither too broad nor too narrow.

Your topic is too broad when:

  • There is too much information to cover in one essay.
  • Your assignment will lack depth and focus.

Your topic is too narrow when:

  • Tracking down information takes too much time.
  • There is not enough information available on the topic.
  • Your assignment may lack breadth.

As you formulate a well-focused topic, keep in mind that it may change depending on whether you find too much or too little information. The only way to know if your topic is "just right" is to start searching for information.

example Example: Too narrow / too broad

The effects of television violence in Canadian programming on children from single parent homes in Montreal.

This topic is too narrow; here are suggestions to help broaden this topic:

  • Exclude geographic locations such as Canada and Montreal.
  • Brainstorm other relevant issues that may provide more information: Television violence in Canadian children’s programming OR The role of television in single parent homes.

The effects of television violence.

This topic is too broad; here are suggestions to help narrow down this topic:

  • Include geographic locations such as North America or Canada.
  • Include a Who in the topic, like pre-teens or university students.
  • Include a What in the topic, like crime rates or bullying behavior in children.
activity Activity - Give it a try!

Are these topics too broad, too narrow, or just right?

Congratulations! You did it!

Try again!


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