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Got a research assignment... Now what?

Most college professors give broad guidelines in assigning a research project because they want you to work on an issue that you care about. It's important, then, to understand the difference between working on a broad research topic and working with a better, more helpful research question.

When you first get an assignment from a professor, be sure you understand all of the following...

  • The type of assignment. Do you need to write a paper, make a speech, or create a presentation? Are you expected to provide information, define a problem, or argue a solution?
  • The due date and suggested length of the assignment.
  • What types of resources are required to be cited? Books? Newspaper articles? Scholarly articles? Web sites?
  • What citation style is required? MLA, APA, or other?

If you're allowed to choose your own topic to start with, then try using these tips to choose a good one:

  • Will the topic meet the instructor’s requirements? 
  • Is the topic interesting to you? Your interests and prior knowledge may contribute to a better research paper.
  • Is information already published on the topic?

Once you're clear about your topic, it's best to narrow your focus to a more specific aspect related to that topic. Better yet is if you can craft a specific research question related to the topic that meets the requirements of your assignment.

The best research questions are open-ended (the answer to the question won't be a simple "Yes" or "No") and they try to address a complex issue or solve a problem. Often these questions start with the words "Why" or "How."

The following show some examples of going from a broad topic, to a narrower topic, to a specific research question. 

Broad Topic

Narrowed Topic Sample Research Questions
gun control gun control laws / legislation

How could laws be passed that might reduce mass shootings in schools and colleges?


Why is it so difficult to get gun control laws passed in the United States?

homelessness solutions for homelessness

Why is it smart for cities and states to spend more money on homeless solutions?


How can more affordable housing be supplied to limit homelessness?

social media

regulation of social media


cyberbullying with social media

Why should social media sites such as Facebook be regulated? How could regulation stop the spread of misinformation?


How can social media be better used to prevent cyberbullying?

vaccines anti-vaccination movement

Why do people distrust recommendations by medical professionals to vaccinate their children?


How can laws that mandate vaccinations protect public safety?


Notice that these research questions...

  • Are open ended. They can't be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No."
  • Address an issue or controversy and/or attempt to solve a problem.
  • Allow you to support an opinion, pro/con.

Need to focus your question a little more? Try one of these tricks...

  • Focus on a specific geographic area (example: immigration in California or Los Angeles)
  • Focus on a specific ethnicity, age group, gender, or population (example: technology use by teenagers or women)
  • Focus on one specific aspect of the larger issue (example: gun control and game hunting)

Students typically need to conduct preliminary research--also known as PREsearch--to narrow a research topic and decide on a thoughtful research question.

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