Developing Sub-questions

King Henry VIII.
"Portrait of Henry VIII", Walker Art Gallery, Item No. WAG 1350. Public Domain. Source:

Once you have become familiar with your topic through your background research, you can begin to think about how to approach answering your Key Inquiry  Question.


However, the Key Inquiry Question is usually too broad to answer at this early juncture. Therefore, you need to break your Key  Inquiry Question into smaller questions (called 'sub-questions') in order to answer it sufficiently.

How to Create Sub-Questions

A good Key Inquiry Question can easily be divided into three separate parts which can be turned into sub-questions. Based upon good background research, you should be able to identify the three divisions of your Key Inquiry Question.


For example:


If your Key Inquiry Question was:


Why did Martin Luther King believe that social problems could be fixed through non-violent means? 


The three parts that need to be answered separately can be highlighted as follows:


Why did Martin Luther King believe that social problems could be fixed through non-violent means? 


Each of these parts can be turned into three sub-questions (with the same three elements highlighted).


For example:

  1. What were Martin Luther King’s beliefs about society?

  2. For what social problems did Martin Luther King want to find a solution?

  3. How did Martin Luther King imagine that non-violent practices could help?


The Importance of Good Sub-Questions

Spend time thinking of good sub-questions. Well thought-out sub-questions can mean the difference between an average and an excellent essay.


Good sub-questions should:

  • Be 'open' questions (This means that they cannot be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer. Usually this means starting the question with: who, what, when, where, why, or how)
  • Incorporate terms and concepts that you learnt during your background research


In answering each of your three sub-questions through source research, you will ultimately have an answer for your Key Inquiry Question.


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.

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