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Researching an Essential Question

This information is adapted from:

The effectiveness of your research, and therefore your learning, depends on the quality of your essential question. The ability to ask great questions often separates great research projects from good ones.

Getting Started:
An essential question is any question that requires one of the following thought processes:

The essential question directs the course of your research. It should be powerful and interesting so it will motivate you, direct you, and help you feel committed to the process of critical thinking during your research. The answer to your essential question will require that you build interesting background knowledge and integrate the bits and pieces of knowledge that you learn as you go along. The answers to your essential question will demonstrate how much you’ve learned through the research process.

From Point A to B: Avoiding the Simple Question
Writing questions such as “What was Ellis Island?” or “What process did they use to screen people at Ellis Island?” simply asks you to move information from one point (the resource) to another (your paper). By asking this type of question, you might even be tempted to plagiarize!

Instead of the above question, you might ask yourself: "What screening process would be a fair way of treating people immigrating to the U.S.?” This is a more powerful question than "What is Ellis Island?" or “What process did they use to screen people at Ellis Island?”  However, you can improve upon your essential question even more.  At this point, your question only requires you to develop a list of strategies, and you can answer your question by simply moving information from the computer or library book to your paper.

A much better question would be "What plan could I develop that would be the most fair and effective process for processing U.S. immigrants?  My screening process can have only two strategies. I’m going to defend why I selected those two strategies." In this case, you’re challenging yourself not only to research what happened at Ellis Island; you’re also challenging yourself to think much more deeply about topics such as human rights, fairness, and basic American values.



More examples of essential question starters:


·        Is it ever acceptable to ……?

·        Was it fair to……….?

·        Which immigration laws made the biggest impact on ……?  

·        Which decision that my ancestors made had the most impact on…..?

·        Was the decision my ……. made the best decision?


·        Was the suffering ……….went through worth it in the long run?


·        Have we learned our lesson about…….?


·        What would our country be like if……..hadn’t…….?


·        What would my life be like if……..hadn’t……..?

This website was created and is maintained for use in classrooms dedicated to multicultural understanding. 
Material from and links to other sources have been chosen because of their relevance to this goal. 
For questions or comments, or to report problems with links, please contact:
Ann Ramsey