Phase 3 - Formulating a Question and Thesis

Step One: Formulating Your Research Question

When you do preliminary research, you should ask questions of your topic. This active reading provokes further investigation and reflection, sharpening your knowledge and suggesting informed answers to your questions.

As you progress, your questions become specifically tailored to your topic. Ask questions that help you move toward one or more of the following goals:

  • Formulating a Question and ThesisTo determine why a topic is important and which aspects of it are most worthy of investigation
  • To identify and explore various aspects of a topic, including the relationships between these aspects
  • To locate and describe forces that have shaped the various aspects of your topic
  • To explain how your topic has been understood by others and why
  • To analyze important texts closely, striving for as deep an understanding as possible
  • To demonstrate how a particular writer relates to a tradition of thought (i.e. doctrinal, ecclesiastical, political, philosophical, etc.) 
  • To make judgments about the effect and value of a particular thinker, movement, or work

When beginning your research, your initial reading and thinking will focus on a very broad topic. For example, if you are interested generally in J. Gresham Machen, begin your research by reading through Machen’s works and biographical sources.

However, as you learn more about your general topic, look for a specific aspect of it to investigate. Perhaps you find yourself interested in Machen’s views on the church or on politics.

Your own curiosity will guide this movement from a general topic to a more specific topic. If everything seems interesting, you need to push yourself to narrow your topic to a manageable size.

The goal of this initial investigation of your topic is to increase the clarity and depth of your understanding, so that you can formulate a single focused question that you will seek to answer in your paper. Ask many different questions during the research process in order to determine the question that you will present to your readers as the subject of your paper. A good question must be

  • Interesting and worthwhile in order to engage both your attention and that of your readers.
  • Not a matter of settled fact but a debated question requiring careful research and thought (The question, “Was Machen a proponent of public education?” is a matter of settled fact, for example. The question, “What core philosophical and political assumptions drove Machen’s opposition to public education?” is worthy of investigation.)
  • Narrow enough for you to investigate its details at a sufficient depth
  • Not so narrow so as to make your answer trivial
  • Often focused upon a specific text or group of texts
  • Sufficiently clear, specific, and declarative to permit an affirmative or negative answer

The last point needs explanation. If your research question is vaguely articulated or too broad in its scope, you will have difficulty formulating and testing a hypothesis.

For example, you should not write a term paper answering the general question “How did J. Gresham Machen respond to Modernism?” The topic is so broad that your answer to the question would have to be very complex (e.g. he wrote theological articles and books, he became involved politically, he formed a new seminary and denomination, etc.). You simply do not have time to research each of these responses in depth.

Moreover, attempting to study and answer such a broad question will make it difficult to form a clear, precise, and persuasive thesis. Vague questions prompt vague answers, which are difficult to evaluate and not very useful to your reader.

Because the goal of researched writing is clarity and focus, make sure your question is focused enough to allow a focused, concrete answer. For example, a better research question might be “How was Machen’s articulation of the gospel in 'The Responsibility of the Church in Our Age' shaped by social, political, and theological issues in early 20th century America?” Notice that this question is focused on a specific text and does not have an obvious answer.

Step Two: Moving from Working Hypothesis to Thesis

You will begin formulating tentative answers (hypotheses) as soon as you identify your question. But critical thinking requires that you subject your initial thoughts to thorough scrutiny. You may, in the end, find that your hunch was right, but often you will discover new facts that require reconsideration.

Most research projects involve modification of the researcher’s initial ideas as the hypothesis becomes more specific. As you engage in the circular task of formulating a hypothesis, researching your question further, and re-formulating a better hypothesis or a better question, you are not starting over after having wasted your time. Rather, this process of study and reflection should develop and expand your thoughts, producing as its result the ripened fruit of a clear and informed thesis.


Other "Developing Your Thesis" topics:

Moving from Topic to Thesis

Phase 1 - Critical Thinking and Research

Phase 2 - Choosing and Narrowing a Topic


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