Here's a real-life example of formulating/developing a research question from Tyndale's manager, Helen Howell:
In Anglo-Saxon Lit, one of our weekly assignments was to consider the words of Beowulf's comfort to Hrothgar: "Do not sorrow, wise man, for it is better that each man avenge his friend than deeply mourn." The professor asked us to answer a couple of questions: Was the poet portraying Beowulf negatively in this passage? How did it relate to the larger themes in the poem and/or the Anglo-Saxon notions of revenge?
Trundling happily along in my reading, I started underlining all the references to vengeance, and I noticed a cluster of them around this section. The conversation in question is directly preceded by the report of Grendel's Dam, who is first and foremost described as an avenger. You're almost clubbed over the head with it--she's the Avenging Vengeful McVengypants. Surely, I thought, it was no coincidence that this description comes right before Beowulf slapping Hrothgar on the back and saying "Bah, don't worry. I'll avenge him for you."
What, I asked myself, was up with that?
I skimmed the rest of the poem and formed a quick hypothesis (bad idea): The monsters in Beowulf were symbolic of Evil with a capital E, and the poet was deliberately associating his characters with them in order to show how far his culture had sunk into Badness. Was that hypothesis, I asked myself next, borne out by a closer examination of the text?
It wasn't. It was, in fact, a rubbish hypothesis. I raised the question in recitation and realized in the ensuing discussion that it was unclear, oversimplified, and hard to prove from the text, so I ditched it for a much more fruitful question: How were the monsters related to the other characters in the poem?
When I read with that question in mind, I made all kinds of discoveries. Before Grendel comes along, Scyld and Unferth are described in the same way he is. Before Grendel's Dam, we have the fight at Finnsburg, which is all about revenge for a fallen kinsman and the grief of a bereft mother. Before the dragon, there is the story of Ingeld and the Lay of the Last Survivor, both of which have to do with gold-lust. There was obviously a deliberate juxtaposition going on; I just had to find out more about it.
Armed with this evidence from the text, the questions I eventually took into my research were something like these:
- Is there scholarly support for the idea that the digressions and the monsters are connected?
- What is the nature of that connection and how does it relate to the larger structure of the poem?
- What is Beowulf's role in this structure? Is he part of the connection, or outside it?
My initial question of "Huh. What's that all about?" came up as a direct result of a question the professor asked the class. I made the initial mistake of jumping to a conclusion before asking questions, which wasted time and frustrated my attempts at research. But a fruitful discussion with other people helped me discard my wild hypothesis in favor of better open-ended questions, so by the time I hit the library, I knew exactly what I was looking for.