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What do I want to study?

Designing a good research question - Teacher’s Guide


Activity Description/Rationale

Students will conduct a research project investigating urban bird behavior in New York City.  Working in groups of 2-4, students will choose an authentic question, design a research method, collect data, analyze results and present their findings to the class.  This lesson will be the first of the research lessons.  Its aim is to teach students how to create a researchable question.  It is designed to be a mini-lesson that helps students craft their own question.

Estimated Length of Activity

This activity will take the place of 1 one- hour class periods (1 hour total). 

  • The first part of the lesson will introduce students to the properties of a good research question and model an exercise students can use when developing their own question.
  • The second lesson part of the lesson will allow students to look through their bird journals, talk to potential group members, and brainstorm some possible questions.   
  • The third part of the lesson will be a meeting with groups of students and teacher to review and discuss possible research questions. 

Goals: Process Skills, Content Knowledge, and Attitudes

Content Goals: SWBAT


  • Understand what constitutes a good research question

Skill Goals: SWBAT

  • Develop their own research question using their bird journals and class literature for help


  • Bird journals
  • Student question worksheet


Students should be keeping bird journals throughout the duration of the course, with at least 2-3 entries per week.  This will help to be a starting point for developing questions on topics they might find interesting related to birds.  Students should review these journal entries and any other bird literature from the course to begin brainstorming about a possible research question. 

Activity Instructions

Step 1 (25 minutes):  Teacher goes over some prompts for students to use when coming up with their own research question.  Teacher should stress the following about a good research question:

  • Student should be interested and curious about the topic
  • It is testable and feasible within class time frame and available resources
  • It has significance outside of student’s own interest
  • Even questions that seem silly or trivial may have significant results
  • Questions that start with hows and whys invite deeper thinking than what, when, and where
  • Questions should not be able to be answered by looking it up

Brainstorming prompts for a research question:

  • What are you curious about regarding birds?
  • What is happening in your neighborhood that puzzles you?
  • What do birds act the way they do?
  • Is it different from other bird behaviors you have seen?
  • Is there anything from your bird journal observations that interests you to find out more about?

Make sure students’ question has significance, beyond your simple interest in it.  So what? Why would others think this is a question worth asking? Think of it this way, how would not answering this question keep us from understanding something else better than we do? 

3 Steps to Coming up With a Question: (The Craft of Research, Booth et al., 2008)

  1.  Name your topic
    1. I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________
    2. Ex. I am studying the causes of the disappearance of large North American mammals…
  2. Add an indirect question (that indicates what you do not know or understand about your topic)
    1. Because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/ why/ how ____________
    2. Ex. because I want to find out whether they were hunted to extinction…
  3.  Answer so what? By motivating your question
    1. In order to help my reader understand how, why or whether: _____________________________
    2. Ex. in order to help my reader understand whether native peoples lived in harmony with nature or helped destroy it.

Step 2 (25 minutes):  Students work in groups to come up with an authentic research question.  Students can use their bird journals or any class literature. 



  1. Name: ________________________________
  2. Group Members:

_____________________________     _____________________________    _____________________________

  1. Group Topic:  ___________________________________________________________________________
  2. Group Research Question: ______________________________________________________________________________________________


Step 3 (10 minutes):  Teacher makes sure to visit each group to hear ideas for a research question, offer feedback, and ultimately approve questions. 



At the end of this activity, groups should have a research question that they will begin to investigate.  For homework, students should begin collecting literature about their question topic and brainstorm field methods to collect data.   


Teacher should meet with student groups to review their research question and provide feedback, if necessary, before the class ends. 

Instructor’s Notes

Research topics most often come from observing and asking questions about everyday activities, that’s why it is very important that students keep up with bird journals and teachers monitor them throughout the course.  

Remind students that it is crucial for them to choose a topic and question that they are genuinely curious and interested in finding the answers to.  Also, questions with hows and whys invite deeper thinking than what, when, and where.  Make sure students’ questions cannot be answered by simply looking it up and make sure questions are testable, so that students can find hard data to settle the question.  Some questions that seem trivial or silly have answers more significant than expected.