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Research question: Refining and Focussing

Part of the Information Literacy Portal

Understand your assignment


  • Have you been assigned a topic or can you pick your own?
  • What is the context of your assignment, what is the learning goal (internship report or graduation thesis)?
  • How many pages/words do you need to write?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources?
  • How much time do you have to conduct your research?
  • Is currency of information important?
  • For which target group are you writing?

Identify the topic

Write down what you already know about the topic. Use that information to develop questions.

  • What is the main topic of the search question?
  • What are the (possible) subtopics?
  • What is your familiarity with the topic?
  • Which limitations?
    Geographical, language-related, level, period, etc.

In other words, try to get a clear picture of your subject.
To do that, you can use:

  • search engines
  • encyclopedias
  • dictionaries
  • news sites and newspaper databases
  • topic portal

or talk to an expert on the subject area.

Define your topic

After the orientation phase you will have a clearer picture of the scope of your topic. To define your subject as clearly as possible (and to write a good essay) you need a clear research question and a clear approach or angle. This will enable you to make a selection from all the literature available on a subject. Determine which aspects of the subject you will and will not deal with. 

A well-defined question makes the search much more efficient!

Formulating a good research question requires a great deal of thought and time. Still, it is absolutely rewarding to invest time in this part of the research process since your research question forms the basis for your research. In addition, a clear research question will also save time, because it enables you to tackle your research in a focused manner.

You can also refine your subject by choosing a specific time period or, for example, a specific country or language.

Your own role

In most cases, it will not be possible to find literature that gives a precise answer to your research question. You will have to use the literature you find to make connections and arrive at the answers yourself, backing them up with arguments.

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