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Literature Reviews

Determining Your Research Question

When determining your research question, one method is to start with a topic and work through these questions:

1. What do you want to know about this topic?

Example: "I want to research the effects of high educational costs"

2. What population or context do you want to study?

Example: "I want to focus on college students"

3. What interventions, variables, or relationships do you want to explore?

Example: "I want to know what the impact of using Open Educational Resources"

4. What is the research scope?

Example: "I will interview college students participating in classes using OERs and ask them about the impact of these free resources on their college experience."

Refining Your Research Question

To refine your research question, you can ask more questions
  1. Is your topic clear enough that the audience can understand it?
  2. Is your topic narrow enough that it can be addressed within the size of the project?
  3. Does your topic require synthesis of sources and ideas to adequately address the question?
  4. Are the answers to your research question able to be discussed and debated, rather than just being standard facts?
  5. Is your topic doable in the amount of time that you have to complete the project?

Mapping Your Research Topic

One technique to help you define your scope is to take each component from your topic and list them from the least focused to the most focused. This will give you the ability to scale up and scale down.

A topic being broken down into more narrow topics: Example 1: Educational costs, costs beyond tuition, course materials, and textbooks. Example 2: students, undergraduates, first generation undergraduates. Example 3: United States, Midwest, Illinois, Chicago-area, Chicago


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Jason Kruse
Northwestern University Library
1970 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
Subjects: Sociology


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Lauren McKeen McDonald
Open Education Librarian
Northwestern University Libraries
Administrative Suite, 1392