Teaching Tips: Helping Students Write Good Research Questions

This past semester I taught ENG 3010 for the first time, and online, and was excited to support students in shaping their research projects over the course of the semester. Having taught ENG 1020 for a long time, I was familiar with how to help students write good I-Search questions that could open up strong possibilities for shaping eventual researched arguments, but I found that asking students to write research questions that are relevant to their discipline-based inquiries is a different animal. In the I-Search, students write questions that help them answer something they want to know or need to know, and this idea of personal motivation or interest driving research questions makes good sense to students who have to practice engaging in long-term inquiry as they then craft their arguments and revise these arguments into different genres in later projects in the class. In their literature reviews and research proposals in ENG 3010, however, students are beginning to pursue inquiries of interest to a discipline that many of them are still very much outside of. They have typically done little reading of scholarship, including the few articles we ask them to review in their initial projects in the class; they have often only taken introductory courses in the field they are pursuing. Some of our ENG 3010 students will have established experience in their discipline; most, however, will be using the course to begin a professional exploration, even if they feel certain about their major. Thus, when it comes to crafting a research question that responds to scholarly conversations in the field, and is not based primarily on the student’s curiosity or disciplinary knowledge deficits, many students have a hard time identifying both the content of a good question and the phrasing that will make that question as generative as possible.

What I found when I worked with my online students on crafting their research questions was, just like it is for me when I am pursuing a conference paper, article, or new research study, a process that requires a significant amount of time, reflection, and revision. Though the initial project in the course, the Personal Research Guide, requires students to draft some initial research questions, this is ultimately brainstorming that gives teachers a place to begin a thoughtful feedback process, in which they offer students guidance on phrasing research questions, and sometimes on hunting for the right question. Often, I had to read between the lines of everything else students were writing to find the potential research questions lying therein. Then, I offered these to students as possibilities. Sometimes this process was fast—students appreciated the feedback and took up the rephrasings and suggestions; sometimes, it took a significant amount of email and conference dialogue—even up through the literature review project–to get to a question that worked for the student and the task of crafting a research proposal.

The simple reflective conclusion for me was that for those initial drafts of research questions and the subsequent teacher feedback on those questions to be the most productive, more direct instruction on how to craft research questions needs to come in the first or second week of the ENG 3010 course (I’ll note, too, that direct instruction and feedback mechanisms need to be part of the I-Search process as well). Crafting research questions was never part of my training as a teacher or graduate student, though—it was something that, like it probably is for most of us, something I learned by doing it and through conversations with my advisor and research partners. So, when asked by one of my teaching circle colleagues if I had any good sources on teaching research questions, I wished I had a “yes”. Time for me to find some good sources to prepare to support this initial instruction, and to stop relying on things to just play themselves out pedagogically—some of our students need this early support and the slow unfolding of crafting an essentially strong question will not always do in a fifteen week course that is as rigorous as our ENG 3010 course. In the rest of this post, I’ll work to curate a handful of promising resources for teaching students to write strong research questions.

I’m sure this handout has been shared with me at some point in my subbing for 3010 courses in the last few years. Useful here is how the authors point out that it is not enough to write a research topic in the form of a question; rather, the way the question is crafted is what makes it interesting or important. The handout presents several examples of research questions to show students how to move from broad to narrow questions, neutral to argumentative questions, objective to subjective questions, and open-ended to directed questions. These examples are followed by a heuristic checklist students can use to test their research questions. Overall, the handout seems like a useful follow-up to some work on crafting questions that respond to a disciplinary issue or conversation, and could be introduced after some reading and brainstorming on common/important disciplinary issues or questions.

Scaffolding suggestion: It makes sense to make sure that in Project 1, the Personal Research Guide, students are doing at least a cursory review of recent journals or posts in their field and are asking questions in their interviews to help them identify key issues or topics, so they are not drafting questions in a vacuum.

What I immediately appreciated about this video was that the creators point to examples from scholarly articles to show how we can see evidence of research questions in the text. Also useful is the distinction between topics and research questions. The video explains steps for writing a research question using the topic example “women and politics” and moving from topic to focusing a question. The moment on focusing a research question provides an especially useful illustration. Again, I wish that the video presented the need to craft questions that respond to issues or conversations in a particular field, as this grounding in or connection to prior scholarship is a key part of students’ work on the literature review and research proposal projects in the second part of the semester.

Scaffolding suggestion: The video includes an example of a mind map or cluster map of potential narrowed topics. In our sequence, we sometimes don’t introduce this task until just before the literature review project. It may be helpful, instead, to ask students to do some of this mapping as part of their personal research guides, especially if we intend for that initial project to be a text that students return to, use, and revise throughout the semester.

Three major things are useful about this handout: 1) it mentions the disciplinary element (though it does not provide examples); 2) it describes the development of a research question as a recursive process rather than as a simple step-by-step procedure; 3) it encourages reading as part of this recursive, reflective process. The handout is constructed with descriptive and directive sections, so it could be used as a way to reinforce the process with students. However, the very quick reference to several rhetorical modes at the bottom of the handout would require some classroom dialogue and examples to be really useful.

Scaffolding suggestion: Our 3010 discussions often begin with an examination of the characteristics of a discourse community, but it might be useful to also foreground discussion of students’ (and instructor’s) prior experiences with long-term inquiry and the messiness of the research process. From there, we could move into the work of the first project, and some in-process discussion of what potential research questions, problems, or disciplinary processes are emerging from what students see in this initial research on the discourse community.

 While this is a resource specifically for graduate students in Education, the handout offers several useful points for our ENG 3010 students in general, especially because it is tied to the work of composing the literature review. The author describes the value of writing a literature review to prepare for action research, and some classroom discussion could translate this purpose to the wider variety of research proposals our students from various disciplines will be writing. The author provides a useful distinction between starting with an opinion and starting with a “real” research question and foregrounds the potential for data collection in the set of characteristics of good research questions. The handout closes with a test question for students to analyze and discuss.

Scaffolding suggestion: This handout could be useful in preparation for writing the literature review assignment, perhaps as a text the class reads and discusses together during a session. Important to this discussion would be dialogue about how the ideas presented in the handout coincide with or differ from the uses of literature reviews and research questions in the disciplinary/scholarly texts students have encountered so far in their reading, especially as most of our students will be researching in disciplines other than Education. Overall, the discussion could help students return to the research questions they have previously drafted to think about whether and how these research questions will help them craft a literature review that foregrounds a research proposal, and then to do any necessary revision.

Because many students have not had practice crafting research questions that respond to disciplinary issues or conversations, it is imperative that ENG 3010 instructors directly support them in both finding these potential inquiries and composing research questions that will help them write focused literature reviews and coherent research proposals in the second part of the semester. If you have other helpful resources for writing good research questions—especially on crafting research questions in response to disciplinary conversations—or instructional strategies that have worked well in the past, please share them here.

Adrienne  Jankens is a lecturer in the Rhetoric and Composition Program, the Chair of the Composition Mentoring Committee, and is the head of the 3010 Teaching Circle running this summer.

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