How to write a research rationale

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When you are doing a research assessment piece in History, you’ll often be asked to write a rationale. This is particularly true for the source investigation assessment piece.

What is a ‘rationale’?

A rationale is a written explanation about your research task that helps your teacher understand the decisions you made before beginning your source research.


A research rationale is a statement that explains the reasons behind conducting a particular research study.


It outlines the background, context, and significance of the research and why it is important to answer the main inquiry question.


A rationale seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Why have you chosen this particular topic to research?
  2. What questions do you specifically want answered as a result of your research?
  3. How do you plan on finding the best sources during your research?

How to write a rationale

Based upon the three questions mentioned above, your rationale should have three distinct sections that answer each one.


Please note that you can answer all three in a single paragraph, but the examples below will show them as three separate paragraphs.

Part 1: Explain your topic choice

You should explain as clearly as possible why this particular subject interested you.


Don’t just say “it is interesting”: give specific reasons why.


The more precise you are, the better your mark will be. 


Useful sentence starters for explaining topic choice:

  • I was curious to discover…
  • I wanted to know…
  • I was confused by…
  • I always wanted to know…
  • I have always been fascinated by…
  • I am particularly interested in…
  • I was surprised to learn that … and I wanted to know more

Example explanation of topic choice:

Imperial Japan’s decision to surrender at the end of World War II seemed like a historical anomaly based upon what we learned in class about the Japanese ideologies behind bushido and the samurai. I wanted to know to what degree the atomic bombs had an influence upon the ultimate decision to surrender. I specifically want to know what the Japanese primary sources said at the time of the events to see their perspective. In particular, want to know if Emperor Hirohito left any documents that explained his decisions. 


Part 2: Explain your research questions

You need to explain the steps that helped you to create your Key Inquiry Question and Sub-Questions.


Remember that these questions should constantly be refined to include specific historical terms and information that you found during your background research.


Explain to your teacher why you have included specific information in your research questions.


Useful sentence starters for explaining research questions:

  • The three specific aspects that I wanted to focus upon are…
  • I knew that I had to develop my understanding of…
  • My background research focused upon…

Example explanation of research questions:

Since I wanted to focus my research on the Japanese primary sources, my Key Inquiry Question is primarily about the role that the atomic bombs had upon the emperor’s decision to surrender at the end of World War II. I guess that there may not be a lot of primary sources written by the emperor himself, so I have formed three separate questions to look at his decisions from different angles. My first question focuses on what Japanese primary sources said at the time, including the emperor. My second question looks at how contemporary Japanese historians interpret this event. Finally, my third question seeks to understand how western historians understand Hirohito’s motivations.

Part 3: Explain how you will find your sources

You need to explain what strategies you have to help you find great sources to answer your research questions.


In this section, you want to specifically name the databases, museums or other research resources you know you will utilise to find the best sources on your topic.


It may also be useful to specifically name important historians or primary sources that you know in advance that you’ll need to read closely to help answer your questions.


Useful sentence starters for explaining source research:

  • I have chosen to use…
  • One of the best sources I found was…
  • The most important sources I have use are…
  • To ensure I had a range of perspectives I…
  • It was important to include as one of my sources…

Example explanation of source research: 

I knew that finding Japanese primary sources was going to be hard, as I fear that many of them have not been translated into English. As a result, I am going to start my research by looking at what western historians say by gathering some academic articles from the JSTOR database. I hope that these historians will reference some translated Japanese primary sources and that will lead me to some great resources. After that, I know that the Tokyo Museum website has some primary source documents that may be of use to me, so look through their resources. Finally, during my background research, I stumbled across the prominent Japanese historian, Suzuki, who focuses a lot on this period, so I want to find out what his opinion is of these events. I believe that these resources should give me ample information to help answer my research questions.

Word limit advice

Answering all of these sections in a limited word count can be a challenge.


Therefore, don’t waste space on things that don’t matter, such as simply describing a historical event or person, or talking about simplistic decision-making choices (such as “I just really like wars”).


The rationale’s purpose is to explain your decision-making process. Therefore, if what you’re saying is not relevant, don’t waste space talking about it.

Example rationale

After learning about Ned Kelly in class, I was fascinated to discover that historians disagree about his motivations. What I wanted to learn about is the role that racist attitudes towards the Irish in colonial Australia had upon his life. I don’t know much about the social division between the English and Irish in Australian history, so I want to see how people who lived during these events described Ned Kelly, in order to see if racism was an important factor.


As a result, I have written my Key Inquiry Question to focus on the representation of Ned Kelly in the popular media. To help answer this, I have written my sub-questions to focus on different media types: my first question asks about how the newspapers reported on Kelly; my second is about how he is mentioned in religious sermons of the day; and my third question focuses on his representation in public posters, such as the ‘wanted’ signs for his arrest.


Since my questions are focused heavily on the primary sources, I know that I will have to start my source research on the Trove newspaper database website. This will allow me to quickly find newspaper reports about the main events in Kelly’s life. Secondly, I know that I will have trouble finding church sermons and public posters, so I will have to look for museum websites that may have these resources already, such as the Museum of Victoria and the State Library of New South Wales. I know that they often have educational resources for teachers that include primary sources. Finally, I know from my background research that Manning Clark has done a lot of research on Kelly’s life, so I hope he will mention important primary sources that can help me out, including the Jerilderie Letter.

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:

Watch on YouTube

Need a digital Source Investigation template?

Source Investigation Template
A Word Document template for students to use when conducting a Source Investigation research task. It provides space for six unique sources. The format allows it to be used for any historical topic or student level. ... (Read More)