Skip to Main Content
Westminster College Logo

Library DIY: Starting your Research

How do I move from a general topic to a specific question?

The best way to focus your research and your writing is to have a specific research question in mind. 

What is it that you are trying to find out, prove, or determine?

Here are some common types of research questions:

Question Type Question Examples
Is there a relationship between X and Y?

Is hydraulic fracturing related to increased seismic activity?

Are children with incarcerated mothers more likely to have academic and behavioral issues?

What is the impact of X on Y?

How does the concentration of silver nitrate affect the formation of silver crystals?

How can social media marketing build a brand’s identity?

How does/did X lead to Y?

How did the colonization of the South Pacific lead to decreased biodiversity of the islands?

How did hyperinflation in Austria after WWI influence the economic theories of Fredrich Hayek?

How does/did X use Y?

How does the US Military use propaganda overseas as an aspect of psychological warfare?
How does Toni Morrison use elements of magical realism to illustrate the struggles of the civil rights movement?

What evidence is there for X?

What theory did the Department of Education use to create the common core curriculum?

What evidence exists to support the theory of gravitational waves?

How have researchers thought about X in the past?

In what ways have historians thought of Toussaint L’Overture? Has this changed over time?

How has a scientific understanding of nutrition changed over the last hundred years?

What is the most X for Y?

What are the most potent vectors for disease transmission?

What is the most effective way to cut off the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’?


PICO Method

For fields such as Social Sciences, Education, Business, Psychology, Medicine you might find it useful to use the PICO method.

PICO stands for Population, Intervention, Control, and Outcome.

By defining those four things, you can easily create a research question - let's try two examples:



Control (Comparison) 


Children on the Autism spectrum

Music education

Children receiving other forms of therapy/education

(Children receiving music education)

Language acquisition

British voters

Feeling pessimistic about economic opportunity

Those who feel economically secure

Likelihood of being "pro-Brexit"?

Using the above PICO table, we can generate the following research questions:

Does music education help children on the autism spectrum with language acquisition skills?

  • Ways to narrow this topic:
    • Look at a more specific population (by ASD characteristic/symptom, by age, etc.)
    • Focus on a specific type of music education
    • Measure a specific form of or metric for language acquisition
  • Ways to broaden this topic:
    • Expand "Music education" to "Arts (visual, musical, performing) education”
    • Expand “Language Acquisition” to broader types of learning

Were British voters more likely to be pro-Brexit if they were pessimistic about the outlook of the English economy?

  • Ways to narrow this topic:
    • Look at a more specific population (by geographic county, by "immigrant or native" identity, by social class, etc.)
    • Focus on a specific measure of "economic pessimism" 
  • Ways to broaden this topic:
    • Explore other factors that influenced British voters' opinions in addition to economic outlook
    • Compare Brexit to other similar situations, such as the Catalonia secession movement.