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TC Library Online

A guide to library resources

From research topic to research question

Usually researchers start out with a broad topic then narrow down to a question. Here are some strategies for generating a good research question.

  • Think about what questions you have or that currently exist about your topic. For example, when researching the local food culture, you could ask "Why do people buy local?"
    • "What specific food items are people more likely to buy local and why?"
    • "What are the economic aspects of buying local? Is it cheaper?
    • "Do people in all socio-economic strata have access to local food?"

The 5 W's

Think about the 5 W’s –who, what, when, where, and why– to help you brainstorm different ways you might narrow your question to be more specific.                                

The Five W criteria can add context to your investigation and turn a topic into a research question.

  • The WHO describes an individual or select population you are investigating.
  • The WHAT describes a specific aspect or element that directly impacts the WHO.
  • WHEN is a time frame in which you might limit your investigation?
  • WHERE is a geographical location where you might focus. 
  • The WHY is the reason why this investigation is important or meaningful. The WHY is not necessarily a part of the final research question but more informative of the scope of the project in general.


Research Question: What effect does alcohol have on college students?

Concept Mapping

Create a concept map of your topic that consists of all of the possible aspects and angles of your topic. See this great video on concept mapping:



Keywords are what you will type into the databases to locate relevant articles. Here are some tips to consider when thinking of keywords

  • List the important terms and concept--choose the most important nouns; all other words are irrelevant--think of broader or narrower terms, and synonyms
  • Look for keywords, places, people, organizations, or events in the subject encyclopedia
  • Use a thesaurus or your textbook to identify concepts/words

Keywords have a profound impact on search results. Using the right words will speed up the research process, while the wrong ones can bring to it to a painfully screeching halt.

Example:  Is spanking appropriate in early childhood education?







early childhood  education






corporal punishment













Having keywords in mind, and finding more terms as you scan tables of contents, indexes, databases and so forth, will help you narrow your topic and hone in on relevant sources.  

Now to start using your keywords!  Click on the appropriate tabs for using keywords in library catalogs, databases, the Web and other sources.

If the keywords you initially choose do not give good results, try others on your list, or ask a librarian for help.


This tutorial from Arizona State University that will walk you through the process of Developing a Research or Guiding Question.

You can use your Taft College ID# to complete the quiz at the end of the tutorial.