Developing a Research Question (Lesson A)

The challenge with any research project today is to avoid drowning in information. The first stage, then, in any research project is to define the goal and scope of the research.

Once you have a general topic, step 1 is to focus that topic into a manageable research question. Step 2 is to identify what kinds of information you will need to address the research question. And step 3 is to identify key search terms and strategies that you can use to search for information.

Completing these three steps ensures your research will not be so overwhelming. You will know what information you’re looking for and have some tools ready to help you find it.


This lesson draws on knowledge of two articles. If you haven’t already, you will want to read them now.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5). Retrieved 5 October 2001, from,%20Digital%20 Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it meansWIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from’t-know-means/

The lessons in Study Room 2 provide some summary and comparison work on these articles. You do not need to have completed Study Room 2 to enjoy this lesson. If you haven’t completed it, you can use the following resources to help you in this lesson:

Focusing the Research Topic

Usually, when beginning a research project, you have a general topic or area of interest. But successful research depends on being able to focus that topic into a manageable research question. What is manageable? The research question should be something that can be answered effectively within the scope or word length of the project or assignment.

Consider the template for focusing the research topic. These generic questions can help us start thinking about what we really want to know in our research. Also, by generating a list of questions, we can begin to limit our scope.

Focusing the Research Topic Template (Reference)
What do you want to know about the topic?
What problems are connected to the topic?
Are the ideas clearly defined?
Are there social debates suggested by the topic?
Why is this topic important?

Let’s practice using the template.

Consider this general topic:

Digital Literacy and Education

This topic is very broad. We could write a 1 page newspaper story or a PhD thesis on the ideas suggested by digital literacy and education. We need to decide how we want to focus our efforts by using the questions in the template. From that, we can develop a usable research question.

Answer the questions in the template. You can click to reveal sample answers when you’re finished.

Remember, however, that there are always many ways to focus a topic.

Focusing the Research Topic (Sample Answers)


Digital Literacy and Education

What do you want to know about digital literacy?

What is digital literacy? What skills are included in the definition of digital literacy?

Who has digital literacy? Who does not?

How can we ensure students have digital literacy?

What do you want to know about the relationship between digital literacy and education?

Does our education system teach digital literacy? Should our education system teach digital literacy? How can we ensure the education system teaches digital literacy?

What education can be considered digital literacy?

What problems are there with understanding digital literacy?

Do we know what skills we need? Do we know what digital literacy is? Should we focus on access to digital technology, or the ability to use it, or the ability to build with it?

Is the concept of digital literacy clearly defined?

Debate exists over how to define digital literacy (i.e., Wohlsen and Prensky). The debate looks at the difference between access to and use of technology, as well as particular ways of thinking. The debate includes discussion over whether younger people simply have digital literacy or have to learn it.

Is the relationship between digital literacy and education clearly understood?

Based on readings of Wohlsen and Prensky, this relationship is not well understood. Debate exists around how and why the education system can support the goal of digital literacy. Should the education system change to provide digital literacy? Should it change to respond to already digitally literate students? What skills are truly necessary for the future and which ones are trends in technology? What role do teachers play in this?

Are there social debates suggested by the question of digital literacy and education? What is at stake in this topic?

  1. What skills do young people need to be successful in the future?
  2. Is the use of technology a necessary part of learning and education?
  3. How should technology be integrated into learning and education?
  4. Is digital literacy really necessary? How should it be defined?
  5. Should teachers really change the classroom to meet the needs of technology focused generation?

Why is this topic important?

Digital technology is pervasive in the work, social, and educational levels of our lives. But how much of this is excitement over new ways of communicating, and how much is a fundamental difference in how we interact and learn?

We need to understand what we really need to know when it comes to digital technology so that we can make informed choices about things like our education system.

While Prensky and Wohlsen have different perspectives, both are concerned about what skills are being taught and how they are being taught.

List some questions related to the topic.

Sample questions have been offered in all of the categories above. Any one of those questions could form the basis of a research project. You may find that similar ideas and questions keep appearing as you work through this template; this means you are focusing in on something that interests you.

Here, we can list the questions that seem the most relevant and pressing, based on the answers above:

  1. What is digital literacy? What skills are going to be necessary for future success? Are all of these skills tied to using digital technology? Are there other new skills needed because we live in a digital time?
  2. What skills should the education system provide to ensure that students achieve the digital literacy they need?
  3. Does the education system meet the needs of digitally literate students? Of a technology-focused society?
  4. Should teachers change the classroom to meet the needs of a technology-focused generation? How?
  5. Is there a debate about what skills are needed in the 21st century? Do we all really need to code? Is using technology the most important thing?

As you can see, this process allows us to uncover many different possible approaches to this topic. We have enough questions here for several essays. And your own answers many have uncovered even more.

In the next step, we will select one approach, and focus it for research.

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Identifying the Research Needs

With a broad topic like Digital Literacy and Education, we could develop many possible research questions. For the sake of this lesson, let’s work with this one:

Digital technologies influence how we gain access to information and how we communicate with other people. In the 21st century, what skills will be essential?

Clearly, this research question came out of the ideas and questions we had about the broad topic. But in selecting this question, we must leave off other ideas that we may have come up with. While they may all be significant, we cannot do everything in one essay. Longer and more complex projects can, of course, have more complex questions.

Now, what do we need to know to answer this question?

We need to make a list of all the information we need to know to answer this question. This list of information will help guide the research process.

Follow these questions to identify what information you need to answer the research question.

Identifying Information Needs (Practice)

Identifying Information Needs (Sample Answers)
Explanation of Key Words and Phrases
Digital technology

  • Access to Information
  • How to Communicate
Provides the context of the question. Because of the prevalence of digital technology, we need to think about what new skills we need.

So the scope of the essay is set by these ideas of accessing information and communicating effectively. We need to ask:

  • What do we mean by digital technology?
  • How does it change our access to information?
  • How does it affect how we communicate?

The answers to these questions will help us understand what new skills we need so that we can access information and communicate effectively.

21st Century Skills We are looking for discussion and arguments that define what the new 21st Century skills might be. We will summarize these different positions in the essay and add in our own views.

We want to look for:

  • Any debates over these skills. For example, Prensky and Wohlsen differ in what they argue are essential skills.
  • Different skills associated with different perspectives and fields of study. Do computer science and technology writers identify different skills than educators or people in the social sciences?

List of Information needs

  • How do we define digital technology? Examples?
  • How does it affect our access to information? Is there debate about this?
  • How does digital technology affect the way we communicate? Is there debate about this?
  • What are the essential 21st century skills needed to ensure we can succeed in a world shaped by digital technology? Is there debate about this?
  • Do different fields of study have different views about what skills are necessary?
  • What skills will be necessary to ensure we can manage all the information that we have access to as a result of digital technology?
  • What skills will be necessary to ensure we can communicate effectively using digital technology?

We can use these questions to guide our research. Finding answers to all these questions will ensure we what we need to answer the research question.

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Identifying Key Search Terms and Strategies

Now that we know what information we need, we can start to plan our research strategy. While it is tempting to type fully formed questions into Google, this will not produce the balanced and quality research that you need for academic study.

Instead, the next step is to identify key search terms to use in the search engines.

Let’s practice using a key word matrix. Based on the key words in the research question, you can generate a list of search terms to use as well as consider different search strategies (which means different ways) you can combine your search terms to find useful information.

Answer the questions in the Key Word Matrix to develop additional search terms. Try to think of as many useful search terms and related terms as possible.

Key Word Matrix (Sample Answers)
Key Words Synonyms and Related Terms
Digital technology Information technology, computers, social media
21st Century Skills Digital literacy, cultural literacy, media literacy, technology skills
Access to information Digital divide, information divide, mass information, mass data, digital access, education gaps
Communication Relationships, social interaction, social media, identity, community,

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