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Using A Topic to Generate Questions

Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:

1. Questions require answers. A topic is hard to cover completely because it typically encompasses too many related issues; but a question has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial.



Drugs and crime

Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?

2. Questions give you a way of evaluating answers. A clearly stated question helps you decide which information will be useful. A broad topic may tempt you to stash away information that may be helpful, but you're not sure how. A question also makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research.

3. A clear open-ended question calls for real research and thinking. Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in more meaningful activity of community and scholarship.

Developing a question from a broad topic can be done in many ways. Two such effective ways are brainstorming and concept mapping.

brain�storm�ing noun: 1. A method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group spontaneously contribute ideas. 2. A similar process undertaken by a person to solve a problem by rapidly generating a variety of possible solutions.

The American Heritage� Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000

Brainstorming is a free-association technique of spontaneously listing all words, concepts, ideas, questions, and knowledge about a topic. After making a lengthy list, sort the ideas into categories. This allows you to inventory your current awareness of a topic, decide what perspectives are most interesting and/or relevant, and decide in which direction to steer your research.

con�cept map�ping noun phrase: 1. A process, focused on a topic, in which group or individual brainstorming produces a visual graphic that represents how the creator(s) thinks about a subject, topic, etc. It illustrates how knowledge is organized for the group or individual.

You may create a concept map as a means of brainstorming; or, following your brainstorm, you may take the content you have generated and create your map from it . Concept maps may be elaborate or simple and are designed to help you organize your thinking about a topic, recognize where you have gaps in your knowledge, and help to generate specific questions that may guide your research.

Combining brainstorming and concept mapping (brainmapping, if you will) can be a productive way to begin your thinking about a topic area. Try to establish as your goal the drafting of a topic definition statement which outlines the area you will be researching and about which you will present your findings.

Tips on creating your own concept map:

  • In the center of a page, draw a small picture of your topic. This can be either abstract or representational and the purpose is to jump-start creative thinking.
  • To generate ideas about your topic, start writing key words on spokes radiating out from the central picture. Write only single words (not phrases), and keep the lines connected to the central picture.
  • Free-associate rapidly and DO NOT CENSOR any idea. Keep writing constantly, and try to fill the page as quickly as possible. (Start another page if necessary.)
  • Use different colors whenever possible.
  • When you run out of ideas about your central picture, start associating ideas from the words you've generated.
  • After you run out of words, look at the results and try to find patterns and associations between ideas. Draw arrows and use colors and pictures to connect related ideas.
  • Redraw your map. Eliminate any extraneous ideas and group related ideas into some kind of organization. You should now have several important concepts related to your topic. You might also have a rudimentary structure for how to present these ideas. You may be able to generate a series of questions that will need to be answered during your investigations.

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Research questions are open-ended and require a variety of accumulated data to develop an answer. ("Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?")

Review or report questions are typically answered with what is generally known about a fairly narrow topic. ("What is the rationale for California's "3 strikes" sentencing policy?")

Reference questions are typically answered with single known facts or statistics. ("What percentage of drug-related crime in 1999 was committed by dealers, not users?")