Key Inquiry Question

Taj Mahal, India.
"Taj Mahal of Shah Jahan" by Noeljoe85. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0. Source:

The Key Inquiry Question is the question that your research is aiming to answer. At the beginning of the research process, you know very little about the topic at hand. However, you need to be clear about what you are trying to discover. By reducing your focus down to a single Key Inquiry Question, it will help you to avoid wasting time on needless research, but also help you tell if your research has ultimately been successful.


At the end of the research process, you will write a one-sentence answer to your Key Inquiry Question, which will become your hypothesis.


Key Inquiry Questions use a variety of terms and it is essential you understand what each of these mean if you are to answer properly. Here is a list of the most common terms and what they mean:  


Key Word or Phrase Explanation
Account for Give reasons why
Analyse Examine to explain meaning, relationships, similarities or differences
Argue Give reasons for or against
Assess Determine the value or significance
Causes What things led to or caused the historical event?
Change What was different as a result of this event or person?
Compare Examine and note similarities
Consequence What happened as a result of the historical event or person
Consider Judge and come to an opinion
Continuity What continued unchanged, or stayed the same?
Contrast Emphasise the differences
Discuss Examine by argument, considering for and against
Explain Offer reasons for
How Explain the process, steps or key events
Motive The reasons people provided for their actions
Significance Why is it important?
To what extent Quantify the importance (to a great extent? to a limited extent?)
Why Explain the motives, reasons or causes

Creating a Key Inquiry Question

In most cases the Key Inquiry Question will be provided for you, but in some essays, you will be required to develop your own key question.


Here is some advice to help you create your own Key Inquiry Question:

  • Do not make it a 'closed question': Closed questions are questions that can be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, and usually start with the words 'does', 'did', 'was' or 'are'. A great key question starts with either who, what, when, where, why, or how.  
  • Be specific: Limit your topic by mentioning specific people, times or places.


Testing a Hypothesis

In some essays, you will be asked to assess the accuracy of someone else's hypothesis. This kind of task will require you to look at all of the arguments being made and test these arguments based upon what your sources tell you. This is a great way of working out whether someone's claim about the past is trustworthy, or if the are simply manipulating the facts.


The best way is to turn the hypothesis into a Key Inquiry Question in order to begin your research.



For example, someone's hypothesis could be:


Constantine the Great founded the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.


Your Key Inquiry Question could be:


What evidence is there that Constantine the Great founded the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325?

Need a digital Research Journal?

History Skills Online has a ready-to-use Research Journal that follows these 9 steps and provides links back to the website to help you at each stage of your research. You can grab it here.

Next Step: Background Research