Evaluating Your Research Question

We discuss the following topic on this page:

We also provide the following activities:

How do you know when you have posed a good research question? Below we discuss several criteria for evaluating your research question. Keep reworking your research question until it meets all the criteria.

Evaluating Your Research Question[1]

The spectrum of inquiry ranges from asking simple questions that depend upon basic recapitulation of knowledge to increasingly sophisticated abilities to refine research questions, use more advanced research methods, and explore more diverse disciplinary perspectives.[2] 

The research question is your ticket to joining the scholarly conversation. It should help the reader to consider something that is either not well understood or that is currently misunderstood within the current scholarly conversation. Note that your research question can be about either a work (or works) of literature or about the scholarly conversation related to a work of literature.

Key Concepts

  • Is your question clear, complex, and focused?
  • Is your answer arguable?

Once you have developed a workable research question, the next step is to ensure that it’s clear, complex, focused, and that the answer is arguable. This brings us back to the conversation analogy: Will others in your field – your audience – want to discuss your question? Will your findings add anything meaningful to the discourse and keep the conversation going?

Evaluating Your Research Question

  • Are you filling a gap or solving a problem in relation to the existing scholarly discourse? (Either is fine – just know which direction your research is going).
  • Is your question loaded or leading? In other words, does the question presume things that are not settled? (If so, keep refining your question)
  • Is your question too broad? For instance, if it covers all literature of all time from all places, it is probably too broad. (If so, keep refining your question)
  • Is the scope of your project realistic and researchable within the given timeframe? Keep in mind that some kinds of studies – like comparisons between two authors – can take longer than others. (If not, keep refining your question)
  • Do you have the tools and/or technology needed to accomplish your task? (If not, keep refining your question)
  • Do you have access to the information and resources you will need? (If not, keep refining your question)

Keep in mind the proper relationship between theory and literature. In general, we don’t want to ask if a theory is “in” a work of literature but rather we should ask how theory helps us understand a work of literature. The theory is the lens through which critics look at literary works. So, don’t ask if we can see Freudian theory in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Ask instead how Freudian theory might help use understand the narrator’s psychological state, as in this question: “Is the narrator more interested in protecting himself than he is in protecting his brother? Can Freudian theory help us better understand his motives?”

Let’s watch Jada discuss how she evaluated the question she discussed in the last section:

Literature Research Strategies – Part 5 [3 min 19 sec]

Key Quote from the Video:

Is your question clear, complex and focused?

“So, when thinking about my research question and my thesis statement … one of the things that I tried to think about and I wish I would have thought about a little bit more, is, ‘is my thesis clear, complex and focused?’ And then the other part of that is, ‘is it arguable?’

The research question is really important of course, because you’re asking all these questions as you’re writing, and you’re gathering and you’re organizing, but the thesis statement kind of brings you back down to earth and kind of says, ‘okay, this is your argument, is it arguable? Is it clear? Is it focused? Are you saying something important? are you engaging?’

It’s important to have a complex research question and then also an arguable thesis statement, because once those two come together, you can have a more productive scholarly conversation … And you can shift the conversation in a different direction and bring a different light. Because as a writer, as a researcher, you’re bringing forth more evidence and more complex and different ideas that you maybe weren’t important before, weren’t relevant before.”

A key strategy is to avoid questions with easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers such as “Did ‘Sonny’s Blues’ contain autobiographical elements?” Probably yes. A more interesting question might be to ask how or why Baldwin worked autobiographical elements into “Sonny’s Blues.” Questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no generally end the discussion, and the goal of your research should be to continue the discussion by making an arguable claim. At the time Jada wrote her paper, her research question centered around why James Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues” are still relevant today. However, now that we’ve been through the refining and evaluation process, we see that she could further narrow her question to focus on topics such as as urbanization, race, and addiction. For instance, how did urbanization after World War II affect the lives of black people? Did changes in urban life lead to more addiction among black people? What does Baldwin’s story teach us about these issues and what can we learn from them about urbanization, race, and addiction today?

As we discussed in the Scholarship as Conversation section, the problems addressed by Baldwin are largely unresolved; such unresolved problems continue to engage researchers from many fields. Jada could expand on what she started here by adding her personal perspective to her research in literature and sociology. Further work can be done by posing questions about the scholarly literature on Baldwin. For instance, Emmanual S. Nelson writes about the search for self-identity in Baldwin’s writing.[3] Nelson writes, “Baldwin suggests that one can achieve a genuine and liberating sense of self only through complete acceptance of one’s self, through loving commitment to another, and through identification with one’s community.” When that community is despised by the majority, then identifying with that community can produce “anguish” and “despair.” We might ask what happens when people resist identifying with their community. Do they engage in more self-destructing behaviors? To ask such questions is to follow up on the scholarly conversation put forth by Nelson. When we ask a question such as this, we address both Baldwin and Nelson in our research.

Move beyond your first question by asking a second question, a third question, and so on. The answer to your first question will have further implications; if X (is true), then Y (is implied). Your second question might be to ask about these implications. For instance, your first question might be about categories, such as categories of music in Baldwin’s story. Your second question can be about the function, history, and relationships of music in these categories. Your third question might be about Baldwin’s personal experience with these categories of music. Your fourth might be about the role these categories of music play in his story. Your fifth might be about the legacy of these music categories within black culture today. We can read about the uneasy relationship between black gospel music and more secular forms such as blues and jazz. How does this uneasiness play out in Baldwin’s life? In the story? In black culture today?

If you are still unsure if your question is refined enough, Wendy Belcher, author of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, suggests talking through your research question with a friend or advisor. She also suggests writing an abstract and sending it to a friend or advisor for review. Even when an abstract is not required for your assignment, consider writing one and soliciting feedback as Belcher suggests. Feedback can be invaluable since at this point you are looking for your moment to jump into the conversation.

In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” In that page, we provide a rubric for the research question.

Evaluating Your Research Question [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.
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Exercises

  1. What is your research question? Does it entail secondary (and tertiary) questions?
  2. Does it meet all the criteria for a good research question listed in the page?
    • Is your question clear, complex, and focused?
    • Is your answer arguable?
    • Are you filling a gap or solving a problem? (Either is fine – just know which direction your research is going)
    • Is your question loaded or leading? (If so, keep refining your question)
    • Is your question too broad or narrow? (If so, keep refining your question)
    • Is the scope of your project realistic and researchable within the given timeframe? (If not, keep refining your question)
    • Do you have the tools &/or technology needed to accomplish your task? (If not, keep refining your question)
    • Do you have access to the information and resources you will need? (If not, keep refining your question)
  3. Using the criteria in this page, try to assess one or more of these research questions:
    • “Will ‘Sonny’s Blues’ will help us solve the problem of racism today?”
    • “Why should we teach ‘Sonny’s Blues’ in the classroom?”
    • “Does ‘Sonny’s Blues’ encourage people to appreciate Black culture?”
    • “How did ‘Sonny’s Blues’ change the conversation about race and addiction?”
  4. If you have read “Sonny’s Blues,” posit a research question that might work better than those above.
  5. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  6. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

Creating a Research Question Rubric 

TASK: Create a Research Question
LEVELS OF PERFORMANCE:
Above Satisfactory (A/B) Satisfactory (C) Below Satisfactory (D/F)
Clear, Complex, and Focused Question The research question is clear, complex, and focused. It is not unnecessarily loaded or leaning. It sets up a researchable and realistic project. The research question remains too broad or too narrow. It is somewhat unnecessarily loaded or leaning. It is not very researchable and the project it sets up is not very realistic. The research question requires refining. The research question is extremely broad or narrow. It is very unnecessarily loaded or leaning. It is not researchable and sets up an unrealistic project. The research question requires major refining.
Arguable Answers The possible answers to the research question (the thesis) are arguable. These answers can be much more than just “yes” or “no.” The possible answers to the research question (the thesis) are only partially arguable. These answers can be only slightly more than just “yes” or “no.” The possible answers to the research question (the thesis) are unarguable. These answers can only be a mere “yes” or “no.”
Relevance to the scholarly conversation The research question is relevant to the scholarly conversation and includes key concepts in the discipline. Other researchers and scholars are likely to be highly interested in the question. The research question is somewhat relevant to the scholarly conversation and may be missing a key concept. Other researchers and scholars may only be slightly interested in this discourse. The research question does not add anything of value to the scholarly conversation and is lacking any key concepts. Other researchers and scholars would not be interested in this question.
Question relates to available scholarly sources and evidence Key research sources and evidence are available and relate directly to the research question. Key research sources and evidence may only partially available and may only partially relate to the research question. Key research sources and evidence are not available and/or do not relate to the research question.
Grammar/Mechanics MLA or APA is used correctly throughout the research question. Sentence structure as well as grammar, punctuation, and capitalization are used correctly with minimal to no errors. Generally, MLA or APA format is used correctly throughout the research question, but with mistakes. Some awkward sentences appear as well as some grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors. The research question contains multiple incorrect sentence structures and lacks the use of correct MLA or APA format. There are significant errors in grammar, punctuation, and capitalization.

  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Creating a Research Question
  2. Association of College and Research Libraries. "Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education." 2016. https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework
  3. Nelson, Emmanuel S. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community.” MELUS, vol. 10, no. 2, 1983, pp. 27–31. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/467307. Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

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