matrix‘ (Espinoza Macedo, 2008)

This is about a technique to help you get started on an assignment, and unstick you when you are blocked or don’t know what to do next, and also can be used to help you order your thoughts and structure information.

One of the biggest hurdles for me when starting on a new topic and assignment is where to get started. Sometimes it feels like a wall of information with no obvious entry point. The technique I use to deal with this very common problem – and the one I recommend to students – is called the Question Matrix.

I first read about this in the Essential Study Skills guide by Sandra Sinfield and Tom Burns, two authors who do a similar job to those in Skills@Library. There are lots of free copies in the library, so if you find this technique helpful you may find other parts of the content useful as well.

The idea is to take your topic, and to generate lots of questions about it, essentially to engage your curiosity. A good way to do this is to first draw a table on a piece of paper or electronic document. Then split your topic, tile or research question into different parts, usually somewhere between 2 to 5 (less than two is what you started with, and more than 5 is probably too complex for this exercise). Each part is the header of a separate column within your table. Once you have done this set a timer for an amount of time, usually 2 or 3 minutes. As soon as the timer starts, write as many questions as you can think of in each of the columns. The questions can be simple, such as ‘what is the definition of…’ or sophisticated or weird, or most likely a mixture. It doesn’t matter if you know the answer already or not: the aim is to generate as many questions as you can, so do not get distracted with answers at the moment.

Once your time is up, then you can look at the questions, tick ones that you already know the answer to, cross out any that are irrelevant or out of scope, and you should be left with some specific questions to start your investigation. This might be information you need to find out and can really help focus your reading onto the most relevant information rather than reading around a subject. If you are at the writing stage it may be the questions that you need to answer to help the reader make sense of the topic. In this case you can use the questions to help you to decide how to order your content ie which questions you need to answer first and which questions does this lead on to next.

This technique also works well if you can get another person or a couple of people to do their own question matrix for the same topic, as they can often generate questions you hadn’t thought of or bring a different perspective which can be useful from a critical thinking point of view. You can also use this technique at different points in the process: right at the start, as a way to focus your reading, at the beginning of the writing stage, later on when editing and reviewing your structure. You don’t need to do it at all these times, but it is useful as a way to get unstuck whenever you are not sure what to do next and need a technique to help move you forward.


Espinoza Macedo, G. 2008. matrix. [Online]. [Accessed 12 April 2022]. Available from: