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Writing Your Paper - CECS and Mathematics

Forming Your Research Question

The first step in doing background research is to determine exactly what it is you are trying to learn. To do this, you will need to start out by forming a strong research question. 

When doing literature research you will often be starting with a a vague or broad idea, maybe even one that is assigned to you from your instructor. If you were to immediately begin searching with just that broad idea, you would quickly be overwhelmed with information. You would have a hard time making sense of what you are reading, organizing your findings, or finding a way to draw meaningful connections between the wide array of details you would encounter.

Starting with your broad assignment topic, strengthen your research questions begin by asking yourself the 5Ws and an H: Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How.

  • Who: Who are you looking for information about? Which group of people/animals/molecules/phenomenon are you looking into? 
  • What: Exactly what do you want to know? What are you hoping to find? What is the goal? 
  • Why: Why are you interested in this topic? How does this topic tie into to something larger? Why is the answer to this question important?
  • Where: Can you limit your research to one geographic location? Might you find a different answer if this research were done in a different location? Are you comparing locations or investigating similarities between places?
  • When: What time period are you interested in for this search? Are you interested in the past, present, or the future? What set of months or years will you include in this project?
  • How: How does this relate to other research in the field? How does this topic impact or interact with other topics in the field? How is this used? 



Formulating the right research question for your needs is a repetitive process.

As you begin to find some results, you may see that some look promising but not as many as you would like, or that nothing you have found meets your needs at all. That is fine. Use what you know already (Or do a primary internet search) to go broad on the topic then use filters and advanced database searching techniques to narrow down on it until you pinpoint exactly what you need to know. (ex. if you can't find any research on "repetitive stress injuries in PC gaming", try starting out searching for "'video games' AND 'movement'" and then use the subject tags within the databases to narrow in on what you want to know using the terminology that appears in the articles available. Maybe you wont find anything on PC gaming specifically, but maybe there is information on gaming more broadly.) 



If your research is not returning good results you can always change your focus! 

To make a more narrow focus to your question add more adjectives and adverbs. Ask yourself more questions about the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How that you are looking into.

To make a broader focus take away some adjectives or adverbs. Use a more broad term to replace your nouns or verbs. Try looking for a taxonomy in your area of study to help you determine a hierarchy of terms if you need help.


Narrowing a topic

Narrowing a topic

You may not know right away what your research question is. Gather information on the broader topic to explore new possibilities and to help narrow your topic.

  • Choose an interesting topic. If you're interested in your topic, chances are the others will be too. Plus if you're researching something you are excited about, it will be more fun.
  • Gather background information
    • For a general overview references sources may be useful (dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, etc)
    • The library's main search box is also a good place to start narrowing your focus and finding resources
    • Ask yourself:
      • What subtopics relate to the broader topic?
      • What questions do these sources bring up?
      • What do you find interesting about the topic?
    • Consider your audience. Who would be interested in the issue?

Reference sources

Reference sources are a great place to begin your research. They provide:

  • A way to identify potential research topics
  • A starting point to gather information on your topic
  • An introduction to major works and key issues related to your topic.
  • Key authors in your area of research

From topic to research question

After choosing a topic and gathering background information, add focus with a research question.

Explore questions

  • Ask open-ended "how" and "why" questions about your general topic.
  • Consider the "so what" of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others? 
  • Reflect on the questions you have considered. Identify one or two questions you find engaging and which could be explored further through research.

Determine and evaluate your research question

  • What aspect of the more general topic will you explore?
  • Is your research question clear?
  • Is your research question focused? (Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available.)
  • Is your research question complex? (Questions shouldn't have a simple yes/no answer and should require research and analysis)

Hypothesize. After you've come up with a question, consider the path your answer might take.

  • If you are making an argument, what will you say?
  • Why does your argument matter?
  • How might others challenge your argument?
  • What kind of sources will you need to support your argument?
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