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Developing a Research Question

How to ask an open-ended question that allows you to support a position with historical evidence

Published onDec 25, 2020
Developing a Research Question

Asking Open-Ended Questions

In academic papers, the thesis is an answer to a question about a significant issue that has more than one answer and requires research to provide evidence. It is not a summing up of accumulated knowledge. It aims to resolve an issue, not report information. It engages with different viewpoints, takes a stand, and makes an argument supported by research.

To determine whether a question is appropriate, consider whether the question can be answered with research and whether it is worthwhile to do so. Is there already a clear answer? Is it common knowledge? Are there differences of interpretation, perspective, or opinion? Is it answerable by research?

The most fruitful questions for argumentative academic essays are questions that can be researched and supported with scholarly research but that cannot be answered definitely.

Following is a useful way to analyze potential research questions, determine their appropriateness, and consider how to change them into appropriate topics.

Level 1

Questions that can be answered with knowledge you have right now.


  • What is the first book in the Hebrew Bible?

  • In what religion would the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, be considered a common practice among its followers?

  • The term Hindu refers to core religious beliefs in what


Level 2

Questions that can be definitively answered with scholarly research


  • How many years did the Qin Dynasty last?

  • Which Roman emperor first implemented the Aliment program of social welfare?

  • According to Robert Miller, what is the predominant “theological outlook” in the Gospel of Mary?

  • Who were the first four Rashidun Khalifas of Islam following

    Muhammad’s death?

Level 3:

Questions that cannot be definitively answered but can be researched and on which a position can be formed and supported with scholarly research


  • Why did Buddhism become such an important religion in China?

  • Is the Caste System intrinsic to Hinduism?

  • What factors led to the spread of Islam under the Umayyad Caliphate?

  • How did theological debates in Islam following the Abassid reveal underlying social, ethnic, and class tensions?

Level 4

Questions that cannot be definitively answered and cannot be addressed and settled with scholarly research (often speculative or opinion-based questions that reveal more about the researcher than the topic)


  • Did the ancient Egyptians really believe in the pharaoh’s divinity?

  • How did the majority of Roman slaves perceive Christian martyrdom following the death of Jesus?

  • Did Ali anticipate his assassination and what would he have

    thought about the historical conflict between the Sunni and shi’a?

Level 3 questions are best for writing historical essays, where you are asked to write persuasive argument backed by scholarly research on a significant issue.

Because Level 3 questions have no definitive answers but can be researched, you can take a position and make your case in a persuasive, logical way.

Almost any question can be turned into a level 3 question if you look for the argumentative angle. Think about what types of claims could be made about the topic, what some potential arguments and counterarguments could be, what types of sources you could use as evidence, what types of evidence you would need to support an argument.

Kellie Wilson Buford:

Other research question examples:

1.  How did the Warren Court revolutionize modern American jurisprudence in the second half of the twentieth century?

2.  How did American POWs' experiences in Vietnam compare to those in the Korean War/World War Two/World War One?

3.  How did African American servicemen and service women's experiences in World War Two compare to each other and to those of white servicemen and service women?  How did these experiences help lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement that followed the war?

4.  How did American newspapers contribute to political infighting during the War of 1812?  How did various newspapers portray stories about the war?  What role did newspapers play in the War of 1812 more broadly?  (Substitute specific group of newspapers and specific war, event, time period)

5.  How did the definitions and treatments for mental illness evolve in American history from the 18th to the 20th century?

6.  How did Allied nations' lack of responsiveness to Holocaust victims before and during World War Two contribute to the sheer scale of Holocaust victims?  

7.  How did Arkansas State University navigate de-segregation during the Civil Rights era?

8.  What role did various American newspapers play in the evolution of the transgender civil rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century?  How were transgender individuals portrayed?

9.  How did Arkansans' experiences during the American Civil War differ from other southern and mid-southern states?

10.  Was the American Revolution truly revolutionary?  How and for whom?

11.  How did Chinese immigrants' experiences at Angel Island compare to European immigrants' experiences at Ellis Island?  

12.  How did southern courts deal with the issue of inter-racial marriage in the 19th and 20th century?  (Substitute specific level or group of courts and a specific issue--divorce, drunkenness, prostitution, domestic violence, etc)

13.  What role did technology play in the Mexican Revolution? (Substitute a specific technology and a specific war, place, event, time period)

14.  How did Spanish citizens under the Francoist regime resist their oppression and survive?  (Substitute another group under a different regime)

15. What role did disease play in the First World War?  (Substitute a specific disease and a specific war or time period)