How to write your Inquiry/Research Question

Directions: This document is 5-pages long. Please read it slowly and carefully, as I expect you to understand and apply the content to your own research questions that are due in your inquiry proposal.

Research Questions VS Research Topics

I. Why Use a Question Rather Than a Topic?  Any meaningful inquiry begins with a question. Many students try to research a “topic.” Three problems stem from this approach.

  • First, if the topic is too abstract or general–that is, not concrete or specific enough–it can lead to the complaint that “I can’t find anything.” The student has an idea, but not a “thing” to ground it in. Truly, the student can’t really articulate what he or she is to do.
  • Second, even if the topic is narrowed, a search can lead to too much information splintering out into 1,000 sub-topics.
  • Third,even a search on a narrowed topic can result in a small number of unrelated books and articles–leading to an unfocused research project.
  • The student ends of up writing a report all about a topic, rather than an essay, in an argument, in which the writer takes a stance and writes a clear thesis statement.

II. What are the advantages of using research questions?

A question calls for an answer. Compare the general topic “Chesapeake Bay” with the question “What is the result of watershed restoration on the Chesapeake Bay?” Although there may be differences of opinion, the question has answers that most people would accept. In answering the question, the researcher can begin to describe and analyze the relevant differences of opinion, which may lead to a more fruitful and interesting question.

“How” and “Why” questions are the best. Writers and researchers are best served with questions that are open-ended, questions that invite some complexity.  Certainly all the standard questions should be pursued:  How, What, Where, Why, When, etc., but ultimately the questions which begin with the words “how” or “why” are the best frames for a research project.  What, Where, and When questions often result in definitive, dead-end answers. (Also, questions which begin with the word “Is” lead to a yes/no answer.)

*Note: For UNIV 200, your research questions must begin with “How” or “Why.” On occasion, a research question could also begin with “What,” but be careful of this term because it could lead to a report, rather than an argumentative essay.  If there is just one answer to the question, the question will not lead to an argument.

  • Bad question: What kinds of businesses outlaw skateboarding in their parking lots?
  • Good question: What factors lead certain businesses to outlaw skateboarding in their parking lots?

What, Where, When questions can be narrowed and complicated (in a good way). Suppose you start with “What is the result of watershed restoration on the Chesapeake Bay?” You can then refine that question: “How does over-harvesting impact the progress on the restoration?” This happens naturally as you research the general topic and learn about relevant issues.

An open question calls for real research and thinking. Asking a real question–one for which the student does not have a ready answer–encourages the student to become intellectually engaged in his or her own learning. The work will be more meaningful.

A question is conversational. An open question invites reply, and that reply can lead to other questions. Questions often have a number of responses, or there are various aspects to a question, which stimulate a number of answers. This process of question and answer, like a conversation, can progress and grow.


III. Moving beyond the most obvious question: Avoiding Binary Thinking

Let’s imagine that you are intrigued by the controversy over gay marriage.  This could lead to some good questions, but the most obvious one would probably be:  “Should gay marriage be allowed?”  Note that this question calls for a yes or no response.  That’s binary thinking.  It does not invite complication or complexity.  Writers should avoid asking those sorts of questions.

ALL UNIV 200 writers should avoid binary questions. Instead, ask an open-ended question that will challenge your thinking.

Here are some open-ended questions that occur to me about this topic:  What does the debate over gay marriage suggest about the values of our country?  (That’s pretty easy, but it would be interesting to see what people are saying about this question.) What kind of rhetoric is used in the political arena to discuss gay marriage? How is gay marriage portrayed on Fox news as opposed to CNN?

In sum: When you come up with a question, keep thinking. Your first question is just your first question. The good questions come after it.

 IV. Avoid Big Issue Topics

 Issue versus Primary Source:  Many young writers begin pondering possible research topics by thinking about issues:  gun control, the death penalty, prayer in schools, the legalization of marijuana. These are all important issues and it is okay to begin with these, but these topics have been discussed a great deal already. What can you say that is new about them? Also, issue topics almost always lead the writer into a yes/no argumentative stance that is not effective for this sort of inquiry.

Argument, in the sense of the UNIV 200 inquiry project, is not choosing between right or wrong, but rather exploring a new understanding and conception of something, presenting a way of seeing. If the student’s thinking stops at this point, with the issue only, it will be generalized, overdone, just plain problematic.

Why is this a problem?  Issues like these lead writers to write in generalizations, generalizations that often encompass massive amounts of information that a writer cannot cover successfully in the scope of a single semester.  Additionally, such generalizations work on the principle of taking sides (one is either for or against), so the student ends up with a biased argument that contains little or no original thinking.

If you  approach the UNIV 200 project in this way, you  will violate the spirit of the process (the process of discovering something not already known, the process of making original connections), and thus the experience with the research project will not be fulfilling.

V. So, here are three ideas you should keep in mind:

  • A research question is different from a research topic: a research topic is only a general subject area, while a research question is the specific issue about which you intend to learn more and develop a reasonable, defensible argument (answer).
  • Your question must seek to address, elucidate or investigate an intellectual, theoretical or philosophical problem.
  • Your research question should begin with “How” or “Why”.

Throughout the semester you’ll be sharing your research and analysis in some detail with the public, your classmates and me; I have no objection to you choosing a research question which addresses sensitive issues involving sexuality, violence, etc., but you should not work with a question if you would not be comfortable discussing it openly in a group.

VI. Here are some examples of strong research topics which UNIV 200 students have explored in the recent past:

*Note: These are examples of TYPES of topics that are acceptable for your UNIV 200 inquiry project. Do not choose one of these topics without first discussing it with me. I offer these to you so you can see the types of topics that have made for successful inquiry projects.


  • Images of children and violence in German film after WWII
  • The connection between American war efforts and muscle car manufacturing
  • The aesthetics and literary worldview of Dr. Seuss
  • The social stigma of battered husbands
  • The origins and cultural significance of African-American names
  • The (lack of) tension between avant-garde design and retail fashion consumption
  • Vietnam War photojournalism
  • Black Barber Shops and African American Urban Culture
  • Train Graffiti and a different story of American History
  • Conflicting feminist views of legalized prostitution
  • Portrayals of racial minorities on Star Trek
  • Mexican soap operas watched in non-Hispanic households
  • Skulls in Renaissance still life painting
  • Streetcars and their interconnection with American urban culture 1890s-1940s
  • The popularity of Korean Internet Dramas
  • A history of the lawn and its relationship to the American home / identity
  • Heroic qualities of fictional villains such as Hannibal Lecter and Milton’s Satan
  • Changing concepts of neighborliness in US suburbs since the 1950s
  • Assessing the broken window theory of policing in Richmond’s Jackson Ward
  • Pop culture references / “random” flashbacks in Family Guy
  • Interpreting Chapter 23 of Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  • Using The Simpsons to teach Morality
  • The effects of “hearing” technologies on Deaf culture
  • The commodification and marketing of “haunted houses”
  • The commodification and marketing of UFO culture in the Southwest
  • Portrayals / fictionalized depictions of the Civil Rights Era
  • Rethinking recess and naptime as components the American public school day
  • New Discoveries in Avian Cognition and their Implications for Meat Eaters
  • Responsibilities regarding the restoration / preservation of Richmond historic sites
  • Southern Pride as an American cultural conflict
  • How American Horror films reflect political and cultural events
  • Images of the road and road culture in 20th cen. Southern fiction
  • A history of dildos / vibrators and its alignment with feminist movements
  • The ethics of American propaganda during WWII
  • The business of American military weapons adoption
  • The legitimacy of Freudian dream interpretation
  • Gay subplots in Hollywood Westerns
  • Resistance to mental health services in African-American communities
  • The potential effectiveness of algae as bio-fuel
  • The Law of Attraction and The Secret as American cultural phenomena
  • Single parenthood in Disney feature films

Of course, your topic needs to be focused on new media/digital media–so think about all the ways that the topics noted above could be filtered through this lens.



Much of the above information is adapted from Patricia Strong’s “Why use a Question rather than a Topic?” Patricia Strong is the Director of Core Writing at VCU.


6 thoughts on “How to write your Inquiry/Research Question”

  1. I came upon this site while doing basic topic research. It is very interesting and informative as it offers different approaches than those used in my PhD program.
    Would you mind telling me a bit about yourselves?

    Bob Leedy

    1. Sure. This is a general education course that was taught as VCU’s first cMOOC. The course is called Inquiry and The Craft of Argument.

      What else would you like to know? Feel free to email me at

  2. Would there be some full examples of the paper topics discussed herein?
    I’m sure this will really help.

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UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument, 006

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