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ENGL 2A Honors: Critical Thinking and Writing (Tarnoff)

This guide supports Maura Tarnoff's ENGL 1A-H / 2A-H for Fall 2023 and Winter 2024.

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What Is a Research Question?

The most effective research questions are complicated; they are not “Yes-or-No” queries. Instead, successful research questions are capable of opening multiple discussions, possibilities, and perspectives. Moreover, as we will soon discover, a successful research question is also malleable and revisable.


A Successful Research Question:

  • Has significance for you
  • Warrants attention from others
  • Has identifiable consequences and effects
  • Recognizes its context (historical, social, personal, scientific, etc.)
  • Leads to possible outcomes and/or solutions. 

Before finalizing a Research Question, you must think carefully about issues that appeal and matter to you. In addition, you must also do some initial research and reading in the form of finding background information. This early research will help you formulate a research question that truly reflects your interests and concerns. 

Developing a Research Question

Who? What? When? Where? Why?
Once you have a basic understanding of your topic and the issues surrounding it, narrow your research question by asking the following questions:

Who? - Are you interested in a specific group of people? Can you narrow your focus to a group or demographic, such as age, gender, ethnicity, location, or socioeconomic status?
What? - What are current issues around this topic? Is there anything in the news about it?  CQ Researcher
When? - Is your topic current or historical? Did it happen during a specific time period? Are there any important events surrounding your topic? 
Where? - Can your topic focus on a specific location? Where, geographically, might this topic be significant?
Why? - Why is this topic important? Why should others be interested?

It's okay for your research question to change over time as you find more information about your topic, or take out ideas that don't work.

What Are Keywords?

Keywords are the words you use to search and they determine how successful your search is. If you are researching the effects between pesticide usage and cancer in children, for instance, the most important keywords would be: pesticide, cancer, children.

Generally, it is recommended to only enter 2-4 essential keywords. Do not enter a complete sentence as your search phrase.



Choosing Keywords

Here is an exercise to help you generate keywords:

  • Express your topic in a sentence or question: “What is the impact of homelessness on BIPOC youth in Santa Clara County?”
  • Create search terms by identifying the main ideas or concepts within that topic sentence while avoiding common words likely to appear in articles about unrelated topics.  In this research question, the words in bold are the main concepts to be searched: “What is the impact of homelessness on BIPOC Youth in Santa Clara County?" 
  • Keywords: homelessness, BIPOC youth, and Santa Clara County
  • You may need to brainstorm for synonyms or related concepts. For instance, related terms to "youth" are teenagers, juveniles, and adolescents. You could also express "BIPOC" as African American*, Latin*, "People of Color," Asian American* . You may need to try a few different keyword combinations to find good results. 

Use asterisk (*) to find variations of endings 

Use quotes ( "     ") to search phrases