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Research Planning Guide

Use this guide to learn about the research process and plan your research project.

Step 4: Create the Research Question/Thesis Statement

A research question or thesis statement* (see box on left) is a declaration of purpose that indicates what it is that you intend to explore and discuss in your paper. Establishing a research question will assist you in two ways:

  1. it will help differentiate relevant from irrelevant resources by sharply defining the parameters of your topic, and
  2. it will eventually give structure and direction to your essay when you are ready to begin writing.

Most students start with a topic that is much too broad.  Here are some ways you might narrow the focus of your topic:

  • Limit to a specific time period
  • Limit to a specific country or region
  • Limit to a specific age group, people group, or gender
  • Compare two points on a scale (times, events, people, discoveries, works)
  • Identify an issue or controversy relating to some aspect of your topic (more on that, below)

When you have reached the point where you can articulate a brief, focused research question, you are ready to start your search for resources.

Data as Goal VS Data as Tool

"Reading up on a topic and explaining it is not research" (Badke 21).  But how many times have you done exactly that? No wonder you don't enjoy research!  The problem lies in the way you see data—the information you gather as you conduct your research.  Is finding a lot of data your ultimate goal?  Or do you plan to use the data as a tool to answer a question or resolve an issue?  By changing the way you view your data, you can avoid some of the typical research pitfalls AND embark on a research process that will be more interesting and more successful—and maybe even fun!  (Okay, maybe I got a bit carried away there...)

What are some of the problems with simply studying up on something and then reporting it (the data-as-goal model)?

  • Relies too heavily on other people's writing and/or ideas
  • Superficial, without any depth or analysis
  • Summarizes past information, with no effort to advance knowledge or understanding
  • BORING!

On the other hand, following the data-as-tool model can be more rewarding, because it:

  • Relies on critical thinking with room for your own ideas
  • Focuses on a narrow aspect—a part of the topic instead of the whole
  • Encourages analysis rather than simple description
  • Is deep instead of shallow

One final warning: Always clear your topic and research question with your professor BEFORE you go further. Failing to do so may result in heartbreak and even disaster!

For more information on the data-as-tool model, see below.

When you ask a research question, the data you find becomes more than just an end in itself—it becomes the raw material needed to answer the question.  

  • Begin with a question
  • Collect the data
  • Synthesize it (put it together in a coherent form)
  • Don't stop here!  A report just presents the collected data, but a great research paper goes farther
  • Analyze it in light of the question: How can this data be used to answer my question?
  • Use the resulting information to answer the question
  • Draw conclusions and/or make recommendations

In the data-as-goal model, the data is never analyzed, and the result is nothing more than a report.  The research question encourages analysis, which generates new information or new understanding (Badke 26-7).