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Research Workshop

Lecture: Forming Good Questions

Before you begin, remember that you don't have to start with the perfect research question--nor should you. The question your thesis statement ends up answering should be the result of trial and error; like your project as a whole, it should go through several "drafts." With that in mind, here are the basic steps to follow when formulating a research question:

How do you choose a topic? Well, assuming one is not given to you, ask yourself what you are interested in. What do you want to know more about? Let's say you're enrolled in a Tolkien elective and want to learn more about Tolkien's view of death in Middle Earth. Maybe you are asking yourself, "How do the different races in Middle Earth view death?"

Reference sources aren't intended to give you a thorough knowledge of the topic. They are there to give you knowledge of a topic's broad context and scope. Using a reference source is like using a flashlight in a dark room crowded with unfamiliar objects - it isn't going to illuminate everything for you, but it is enough to let you navigate without tripping over stuff. It provides working knowledge. A good rule of thumb is that you have working knolwedge of a topic when you can talk about it for one minute without repeating yourself. That is equivalent to 150-200 written words. You can organize your quest for working knowledge by using reference sources to answer the five W questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

In answer to your Tolkien question, "How do the different races in Middle Earth view death?", you might use reference sources to collect the following information:

Who? Tolkien wrote Middle Earth, obviously, but what were his personal views on death?
What? What are the races of Middle Earth? Should I perhaps focus on one?
Where? Where in the ME legendarium might I find the important works that address their views of the afterlife?
When? Tolkien went through countless drafts of his mythology. Where do those works fall on this timeline? Are they earlier works that may have been superceded by later ones?
Why? Why is this question important? How does it affect his most famous works and characters? What light does it throw on them?

Having gained a working knowledge of your topic, think about possible issues that have arisen in your understanding of it. Are there obvious gaps in knowledge or argumentation somewhere? Is there something that doesn't make sense? Is there something controversial about your topic? Is there just something you want to know more about?

This is where you can start asking questions about your topic. The trick is to be as focused and specific as possible in your language. "How do different races in Middle Earth view death?" is an enormous question, one that someone could probably write an entire book about. But perhaps it could be focused, thanks to your reference research, to "What role does Aragorn play in redeeming the Numenorean culture's view of death?"

This is a fantastic question; it focuses on one aspect of one  character from one book of the entire Middle Earth corpus, but it uses that focus to address a question that reflects larger themes throughout Tolkien's work. This is a question with "handles": it can be answered in a fairly short term paper, but has the potential for fruitful development. It is also the result of a lot of research--even one or two rough drafts.

Here are some tips for creating a good starter question:

When it comes to scope, good research questions ride the fine line between overly narrow and overly broad. Narrow questions can be answered by mere summaries, facts, or statistics: "How far is Mars from Earth?" "When did Rome fall?" "Are pets really people too?" These questions are bad because they provide no room for argument; they are conversationally barren. Broad questions typically can only be answered--if they can be answered at all--through sweeping generalizations, oversimplifications, or mere opinion; that, or they are simply too broad to cover in the space you have. "Can humans colonize Mars?" "Why did Rome fall?" and "Do nonhuman animals have emotions?" are all examples of questions which are so broad that they offer no handles for meaningful engagement. Of the two ditches, this is the one that novices tend to fall into.

Good research questions, generally speaking, move from small to large, from more specific to more general; they select a specific passage or idea from a text and meaningfully relate it to a larger one. Good questions have research "crosshairs": they relate your first question to another question and pinpoint where the two topics intersect. For example, "What role, if any, did Caesar's second invasion of Britain play in the fall of Rome?" This question is still a little broad, but at least now, instead of addressing the entirety of either topic (i.e., Caesar's second invasion of Britain and the fall of Rome), you can specifically examine the places where these topics overlap.

What are the key terms of your question? In the example above, for instance, the key concepts would be "Caesar's second invasion of Britain" and "the fall of Rome." Once you've identified your key terms, ask yourself: Is there a way I could refine, focus, or simplify these terms? Do they have any synonyms? How else could I ask this question? (For instance, in the example above, we could find the name of the Caesar in question, and could also use "England" instead of "Britain" and "The Roman Empire" instead of merely "Rome.") These are the terms that you are going to use in your search for resources, so the more options you can give yourself, the more effective your searches will be.

Note: There is a difference between refining your terms (e.g., going from a paper on "dogs" to one on "French poodles"), and just finding synonyms for them (e.g., "dogs"="canines"). First refine your terms, and then find synonyms for these refined concepts.

Is your question interesting? If you don't think so, nobody who reads your paper will think so either. Only ask questions you really care about knowing the answers to; otherwise, research is extremely boring and very difficult. And if you are given a topic by your professor, choose to be interested in it. Your professor obviously finds it worthwhile, so imitate his enthusiasm in the topic and make yourself engage with it.

On a related note, is your question relevant? Why does the answer matter, and to whom? Does it relate to things that are actually significant? For example, while the question "Do Balrogs really have wings?" may stimulate the nerd lurking deep inside you, who really cares about the answer? Remember that, in school, you are always writing to a specific audience, and the smaller your potential audience, the less relevant and significant your topic. If you are writing a paper interesting/relevant to only your mom and your LOTR fan-fiction writing club, you may want to rethink your project. And your life.

Haven't used a reference source before? Even if you have, you may not have known how much there is to them.

What is a reference source?
A reference source is a source that is not usually meant to be read straight through. It is intended for specific and quick consultation and provides basic facts, background information, and suggestions for more detailed sources.

Different types of physical reference sources include the following:

  • Atlases: Collections of maps (e.g., National Geographic Atlas of the WorldOxford Bible Atlas)
    • Geography, topography, political boundaries
    • Climatic/social/religious/economic statistics
  • Almanacs: Annual publications with various forecasts (e.g., The World Almanac and Book of FactsAlmanac of Modern Terrorism)
    • Weather predictions
    • Crop planting dates
    • Population statistics
    • World records
    • Holiday information
  • Dictionaries: Collections of words in a particular language or on a particular subject (e.g., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament)
    • Etymologies/synonyms/antonyms
    • Encyclopedic entries
  • Encyclopedias: Overviews of general or subject-specific knowledge (e.g., The Princeton Encyclopedia of BirdsThe Spenser Encyclopedia)
    • Short explanatory articles on collections of topics
  • Bibliographies: Collections of works written on a particular topic, author, book, etc. (e.g., Bibliography of American LiteratureClassical Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography)
    • Citations and often short descriptions of books, articles, movies, etc. relating to a subject
  • Handbooks/Guides/Companions: Introductions to a particular topic (e.g., A Beowulf HandbookA Reader's Guide to ShakespeareThe Cambridge Companion to Augustine)
    • Orientations to main themes and contexts of a subject
    • Sometimes include timelines, annotated bibliographies, and other invaluable research guides

There are also online reference sources available through various databases. (Note, however, that databases are not themselves reference sources, though they may be able to link you to online reference sources. For instance, ShareIdaho [] is a database, not a reference source, though it is capable of linking you to the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology & Ethics, which is an online reference source.)

These and other reference types all have slightly different focus and organization, but all are intended to give you quick information that aids in further and deeper research.

Where can you find reference sources?

The main locations for reference sources are:

  • The "reference" section
    • ​Most libraries have a separate section devoted entirely to reference sources. At Tyndale, these are the shelves located above the computers near the front desk. These sources may not be checked out, but are for in-library use only.
  • The library stacks
    • ​Many reference sources can also be found in the library stacks (the main section of the library). Look for words in the titles like "companion," "guide," "handbook," or "bibliography," all of which suggest that a source is intended for reference.
  • Online databases
    • ​We have access to a few reference resources online, including the Gale Virtual Reference Library, the History Reference Center, and the Library Reference Center. You can find these in our "A-Z Database" list here.

A quick tip
You may not always be able to find a reference source that focuses directly on your own topic. Reference sources are usually designed to be more general, so think about broader categories your topic could fit into. For example, if you are researching cigarette habits during World War II, you could try looking for encyclopedias on the 20th century. If you are researching Flannery O’Connor, you could try a series on notable American authors. If you are researching baptism, you could try a dictionary of Christian doctrine, or a series on theology of the New Testament.

How do you actually use a reference source?

Suppose you are researching the Delphic Oracle. You need some background information, and after scanning the reference shelves, you decide that The Oxford Classical Dictionary looks promising. You pull it off the shelf, what? How do you navigate it?

A source like this is organized alphabetically, so the first thing you do is turn to the entry for "Delphic Oracle." You read through the entry and at the end see something like this:

There appear to be three important pieces of information here (highlighted in red): the name of a book (The Delphic Oracle by Parke and Wormell) for more in-depth research; a review of this book in "CR 1958"; and the initials of the person (WKCG) who wrote this entry in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. How do you follow up on these things?

At the beginning of most reference sources like this there is a list of abbreviations. If you flip to this list (left of image below) and look for "CR," you find that it is an abbreviation for a journal called Classical Review. You will also find another index of author abbreviations (right of image below). This one is listed alphabetically by last initial. Upon examining this, we find that "WKCG" are the initials of William Keith Chambers Guthrie.

In addition to the background information gleaned from the article itself, you now have three items advancing you to authoritative and thorough research. First, you can skim the book review of Parke and Wormell's The Delphic Oracle in the Classical Review (which can be located easily through the JSTOR database) to see if it is a book you want. Second, you can find this book itself: if it is not available at Tyndale, it almost certainly is at the University of Idaho or Washington State University. Third, you can Google "William Keith Chambers Guthrie" along with terms like "Delphi" and "Oracle" to see if he​ has written anything else on this topic. (He has, and it is a book you can also find at a library).

Reading these two pages gave you context, a book review, an academic source, and an expert to chase down--and you didn't even have to consult a database or search engine beforehand. Reference sources are worth the time!

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.

Exercise 2


1. Choose a topic of interest to you. Try to make it focused and specific.

2. Gather basic information for a working knowledge of your topic from at least one reference source in the library. Summarize in about 200 words what you have learned, listing the reference sources you used in a Bibliography-style Turabian citation.

3. Present three or four possible research questions related to the topic which might be suitable for your research assignment. They should deal with one aspect of the topic as narrowly as possible, and should not be "easy to answer" (i.e., a yes/no question).

4. Highlight the question you plan to pursue first in bold.

5. Submit a PDF document containing #2-4 under the "Exercise 2" assignment on the Populi class page.