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Research Help: Essential Questions

This guide provides information on how to conduct a research project from the essential question to the analysis.

Words of Wisdom

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”   ~Albert Einstein        

What is an Essential Question?

Formulating Your Own Essential Question

It's important to develop an essential research question that truly interests you! 

Your essential question will be the main idea of your entire project. Your essential question is a question that asks, in some detail, what you want to learn about during the research process.
An essential question asks about something that you can prove with evidence. It is not a simple statement of fact. An essential question should be the product of your own critical thinking and some background reading.
Your supporting questions guide you as you work so that you will read and take notes only on what's needed for your project.

What makes a good essential question?

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer. The question is "non-googleable."
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
  8. It is interesting to YOU!


Source: "What Makes a Question Essential?" ASCD. ASCD, 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Why question?

Need to find a good question? Check these resources for ideas!

What are supporting questions?

Your supporting questions guide you as you work so you will read and take notes only on what is needed for your project.

Example 1:  Topic = Steroids 

   Issue = Steroids and Professional Athletes

   Essential Question = Should steroids be banned from professional sports?

   Supporting Questions:

  • Why do professional athletes take steroids?
  • What are the harmful effects of steroid use?
  • What are the current laws/rules of using steroids in professional sports?
  • Where do athletes get steroids?

Example 2:  Topic = Skateboarding

   Issue = Skateboarding and Helmets

   Essential Question = Should skateboarders be required by law to wear

   Supporting Questions:

  • Why don't some skateboarders wear helmets?
  • What injuries do skateboarders suffer most often?
  • How many skateboarders are seriously injured each year?
  • How do skateboarding injuries affect the lives of skateboarders?