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Information Literacy (LIBR 2100)

LIBR 2100 Course Materials

The Research Question

What is a research question?

A research question takes you beyond simple facts about a given topic; it is an inquiry into a specific issue or problem. Once you have an idea of what you want to study, your first step in the research process is to articulate your research question. The research question guides you continuously as you write a paper, forms the basis of your research activities, and underlies your hypothesis or thesis statement.

A research question should be:

  • Clear – recognizable and explicit; there is little chance of misunderstanding or ambiguity
  • Focused – a central purpose or interest, rather than a topic that is too broad
  • Concise – the question is briefly stated; the question is phrased with precise language
  • Complex – requires analysis and thinking. If it’s easy to answer, it’s not a research question
  • Arguable – why does this question matter? What evidence will support or refute your claim?

Why is a research question essential to the research process?

Research questions help writers focus their research by providing an anchor for the research and writing process. A well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper – which simply summarizes factual information – and work toward a specific, arguable thesis.

You should ask a question about a topic that you are genuinely curious to answer. You will spend a good deal of time doing background reading, choosing sources, and writing about your findings; if the question doesn’t motivate you to begin with, it will be harder to stay interested in your research throughout the process. Even if you have a limited choice of topics, assigned by a professor, try to find aspects of a topic, or issues that arise from it, that you wish to explore in more detail.

How do I develop my research question?

1. Choose an interesting general topic. Even directed academic research should focus on a topic in which the writer is at least somewhat personally invested. Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more. Examples of general topics might be: Child nutrition, Supply chain management, or Oscar Wilde’s essays.

2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do some background reading in reference sources, and a few quick searches in current periodicals and journals on your topic, to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus. What questions does your early research raise? Ask yourself: So what? An example of a “so what” question might be: Does consuming too much sugar negatively affect the health of Canadian kids?

3. Consider your audience. For most of your university research, your audience will be academic, but always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. Would that particular audience be interested in this question?

4. Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, Why should parents and caregivers limit the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages in Canadian children’s diets?

5. Evaluate your question. After you’ve got a question or even a couple of questions down on paper, evaluate these questions to determine if they would be effective research questions.

  • Is your research question clear? With so much research available on any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in order to be effective in helping the writer direct the research.
  • Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available (this is often determined by assignment requirements).
  • Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts. They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer.

6. Hypothesize. After you’ve come up with a question, think about what path you think the answer will take. Where do you think your research will lead you? What kind of argument are you hoping to make/support? What if your research contradicts your planned argument? At this step, you are well on your way to having a focus for your research, constructing a thesis, and then writing out your argument in a paper.

Sample Research Questions

Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?

Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter?

The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites are causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted.

The clearer version specifies sites (Facebook and Twitter), the type of harm (privacy issues), and whom the issue is harming (users). The reader should not interpret your question; make it obvious.

Unfocused: What is the effect of global warming on the environment?

Focused: How is melting of sea ice impacting polar bears in the Arctic Circle?

The unfocused research question is so broad that it can hardly be answered in a book, let alone a standard university paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause (melting sea ice), a specific place (the Arctic Circle), and a specific wildlife population that is affected (polar bears). When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in North America?

Appropriately Complex: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in North America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought-provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer.

Generally, if a quick Google search can answer a question, the question needs enhancement.

Adapted with permission from George Mason University Writing Center (2014). How to Write a Research Question.

Video: The Research Question


Shared with the permission of Joanne Oud, Instructional Technology Librarian, Wilfrid Laurier University Library. Thank you.

Wilfrid Laurier University. Library. (2015). Developing a research question [Video file]. Retrieved from

The Thesis Statement

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a declaration of the author’s (i.e., your) position on a topic or subject. It provides a theory to be tested by evidence. It is not typically written in the form of a question, but as an answer to a research question. It can be more than one sentence long.

A thesis statement is:
  • Clear, concise, and goes beyond fact or observation to become an idea that needs to be supported (arguable).
  • Often a statement of tension, where the author refutes or complicates an existing assumption or claim (counterargument).
  • Often answers WHY or HOW questions related to the topic at hand.
A thesis statement is NOT:
  • A statement of fact or observation (no matter how astute the observation).
  • A statement of personal conviction or opinion.
  • A generalization or overly broad claim.
For the writer, the thesis statement:
  • Helps the writer determine the essay’s real focus. What are you trying to say with the evidence presented? A thesis provides a theory to be tested by evidence.
  • Serves as a planning tool. The component parts of the thesis often correspond with the essay’s topic sentences.
For the reader, the thesis statement:
  • Serves as a “map” to guide the reader through the paper. In the same way the thesis helps you organize your paper, the thesis helps organize the reader’s thinking. Once a solid thesis is presented, the reader will understand that all of the evidence presented is in service of proving the thesis.
  • Creates a reason to keep reading. The reader will want to discover the support behind the thesis.
If you are having trouble writing a thesis…

…ask yourself a genuine, difficult question about the topic (usually a “how” or “why” question), and state your response, even if you are not sure why you want to give that answer. Your response may very well be a workable thesis, and the pursuit of proving that answer may reveal to you more about your sources of evidence.

…think of a strong statement or observation you have made about the subject beginning with the words “In this essay, I will…” Then ask yourself why this observation is important, or “So What?” [1]. Answer the question with “I believe this is because…” In the draft stage you might phrase a working thesis as the following:

In this essay, I plan to explain how Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contrasts his river and shore scenes. I believe Twain is telling us that in order to find America’s true democratic ideals one must leave “civilized” society (the shore) and go back to nature (the river).

Then revise out the “I” statements. A revised version of this thesis might look like this:

Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.


Writing in the Disciplines

Keep in mind that thesis statements vary depending on the purpose of the assignment (or type of essay), and also by discipline. Here are a few notes on the thesis statements and the purpose of writing in a few different disciplines [2].

English: “A thesis is an interpretive argument about a text or an aspect of a text. An interpretive argument is defined as one that makes a reasonable but contestable claim about a text; in other words, it is an opinion about a text that can be supported with textual evidence.”


Sciences (Biology): “A well-written scientific paper explains the scientist’s motivation for doing an experiment, the experimental design and execution, and the meaning of the results... The last sentences of the introduction should be a statement of objectives and a statement of hypotheses.”


Business: “When you write in business courses, you will usually write for a specific audience. Your goal will be to communicate in a straight-forward manner and with a clear purpose.”[3]


History: “In historical writing, a thesis explains the words or deeds of people in the past. It shows cause and effect; it answers the question why?... A thesis must change a reader’s mind to be of value. If it presents only facts or an obvious finding, it will merely confirm what the reader already believes.”


[1]This strategy comes from Writing Analytically by Jill Stephen and David Rosenwasser.

[2]The following statements on writing in the disciplines have been borrowed from the Writing Guides found at the Writing Across the Curriculum website at

[3]From A Writer’s Reference, 6th Edition, with Writing in the Disciplines, by Diana Hacker. There is now an 8th edition of A Writer's Reference available.


Adapted with permission from George Mason University Writing Center (2014).

Video: The Thesis Statement

This video reviews:

  • The main purpose of a thesis statement
  • Tips for a good thesis statement
  • Examples to evaluate

Shared with the permission of Joanne Oud, Instructional Technology Librarian, Wilfrid Laurier University Library. Thank you.

Wilfrid Laurier University. Library. (2015). Improving your thesis statement [Video file]. Retrieved from

Avoiding Researcher Bias

Research bias is a process where the researcher influences the results, in order to favour a certain outcome. Objectivity is needed when researching and writing. Bias can occur unconsciously when a researcher is not aware of their own internalized biases. 

The following lesson is adapted with permission from the UCMerced Library Think Like a Researcher: Instruction Resources: #7 

1) Pre-video discussion questions:

  • Do you believe that Bigfoot really exists? Why or why not?
  • Have any of you done serious research on the subject of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, yetis, etc.?
  • Have any of you ever seen Bigfoot or some other type of man-beast?

Consider these questions as we watch a video narrated by researcher Mike Rugg. He will be discussing his own experience with Bigfoot and academic bias.

What kind of researcher bias did Mike Rugg encounter from his professor while he was a student at Stanford?
Would you consider Mike Rugg an unbiased researcher? Why or why not?

YouTube Video: Researcher Mike Rugg talks about his Bigfoot Sightings and Academic Bias (9:25 minutes)




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