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Examples of good research questions

Last updated

3 May 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

Excellent research always starts with a compelling question.

However, developing a good research question is often challenging. But, doing appropriate data analysis or drawing meaningful conclusions from your investigation with a well-defined question make it easier.

So, to get you on the right track, let’s start by defining a research question, what types of research questions are common, and the steps to drafting an excellent research question.

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What is a research question?

The definition of a research question might seem fairly obvious.

 At its simplest, a research question is a question you research to find the answer.

Researchers typically start with a problem or an issue and seek to understand why it has occurred, how it can be solved, or other aspects of its nature.

As you'll see, researchers typically start with a broad question that becomes narrower and more specific as the research stages are completed.

In some cases, a study may tackle more than one research question.

Research question types

Research questions are typically divided into three broad categories: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-method.

These categories reflect the research type necessary to answer the research question.

Qualitative research

When you conduct qualitative research, you're broadly exploring a subject to analyze its inherent qualities.

There are many types of qualitative research questions, which include:

  • Descriptive: describing and illuminating little-known or overlooked aspects of a subject

  • Emancipatory: uncovering data that can serve to emancipate a particular group of people, such as disadvantaged or marginalized communities

  • Evaluative:  assessing how well a particular research approach or method works

  • Explanatory: answering “how” or “why” a given phenomenon occurs 

  • Exploratory:  identifying reasons behind certain behaviors and exploring motivations (also known as generative research because it can generate solutions to problems)

  • Ideological: researching ideologies or beliefs, such as political affiliation

  • Interpretive: understanding group perceptions, decision-making, and behavior in a natural setting

  • Predictive: forecasting a likely outcome or scenario by examining past events 

While it's helpful to understand the differences between these qualitative research question types, writing a good question doesn't start with determining the precise type of research question you'll be asking.

It starts with determining what answers you're seeking.

Quantitative research

Unlike broad, flexible qualitative research questions, quantitative research questions are precise. They also directly link the research question and the proposed methodology.

So, in a quantitative research question, you'll usually find

Quantitative research questions can also fall into multiple categories, including:

  • Comparative research questions compare two or more groups according to specific criteria and analyze their similarities and differences.

  • Descriptive questions measure a population's response to one or more variables.

  • Relationship (or relationship-based) questions examine how two or more variables interact.

Mixed-methods research

As its name suggests, mixed-methods research questions involve qualitative and quantitative components.

These questions are ideal when the answers require an evaluation of a specific aspect of a phenomenon that you can quantify and a broader understanding of aspects that can't.

How to write a research question

Writing a good research question can be challenging, even if you're passionate about the subject matter.

A good research question aims to solve a problem that still needs to be answered and can be solved empirically. 

The approach might involve quantitative or qualitative methodology, or a mixture of both. To write a well-developed research question, follow the four steps below:

1. Select a general topic

Start with a broad topic. You may already have one in mind or get one assigned to you. If you don't, think about one you're curious about. 

You can also use common brainstorming techniques, draw on discussions you've had with family and friends, take topics from the news, or use other similar sources of inspiration.

Also, consider a subject that has yet to be studied or addressed. If you're looking to tackle a topic that has already been thoroughly studied, you'll want to examine it from a new angle.

Still, the closer your question, approach, and outcomes are to existing literature, the less value your work will offer. It will also be less publishing-worthy (if that’s your goal).

2. Conduct preliminary research

Next, you'll want to conduct some initial research about your topic. You'll read coverage about your topic in academic journals, the news, and other credible sources at this stage.

You'll familiarize yourself with the terminology commonly used to describe your topic and the current take from subject matter experts and the general public. 

This preliminary review helps you in a few ways. First, you'll find many researchers will discuss challenges they found conducting their research in their "Limitations," "Results," and "Discussion" sections of research papers.

Assessing these sections also helps you avoid choosing the wrong methodological approach to answering your question. Initial research also enables you to avoid focusing on a topic that has already been covered. 

You can generate valuable research questions by tracking topics that have yet to be covered.

3. Consider your audience

Next, you'll want to give some thought to your audience. For example, what kinds of research material are they looking for, and what might they find valuable?

Reflect on why you’re conducting the research. 

What is your team looking to learn if your research is for a work assignment?

How does what they’re asking for from you connect to business goals?

Understanding what your audience is seeking can help you shape the direction of your research so that the final draft connects with your audience.

If you're writing for an academic journal, what types of research do they publish? What kinds of research approaches have they published? And what criteria do they expect submitted manuscripts to meet?

4. Generate potential questions

Take the insights you've gained from your preliminary research and your audience assessment to narrow your topic into a research question. 

Your question should be one that you can answer using the appropriate research methods. Unfortunately, some researchers start with questions they need more resources to answer and then produce studies whose outcomes are limited, limiting the study's value to the broader community. 

Make sure your question is one you can realistically answer.

Examples of poor research questions

"How do electronics distract teen drivers?"

This question could be better from a researcher's perspective because it is overly broad. For instance, what is “electronics” in this context? Some electronics, like eye-monitoring systems in semi-autonomous vehicles, are designed to keep drivers focused on the road.

Also, how does the question define “teens”? Some states allow you to get a learner's permit as young as 14, while others require you to be 18 to drive. Therefore, conducting a study without further defining the participants' ages is not scientifically sound.

Here's another example of an ineffective research question:

"Why is the sky blue?"

This question has been researched thoroughly and answered. 

A simple online search will turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of resources devoted to this very topic. 

Suppose you spend time conducting original research on a long-answered question; your research won’t be interesting, relevant, or valuable to your audience.

Examples of good research questions

Alternatively, here's an example of a good research question:

"How does using a vehicle’s infotainment touch screen by drivers aged 16 to 18 in the U.S. affect driving habits?"

This question is far more specific than the first bad example. It notes the population of the study, as well as the independent and dependent variables.

And if you're still interested in the sky's color, a better example of a research question might be:

"What color is the sky on Proxima Centauri b, based on existing observations?"

A qualitative research study based on this question could extrapolate what visitors on Proxima Centauri b (a planet in the closest solar system to ours) might see as they look at the sky.

You could approach this by contextualizing our understanding of how the light scatters off the molecules of air resulting in a blue sky, and the likely composition of Proxima Centauri b's atmosphere from data NASA and others have gathered.

Why the right research question is critical

As you can see from the examples, starting with a poorly-framed research question can make your study difficult or impossible to complete. 

Or it can lead you to duplicate research findings.

Ultimately, developing the right research question sets you up for success. It helps you define a realistic scope for your study, informs the best approach to answer the central question, and conveys its value to your audience. 

That's why you must take the time to get your research question right before you embark on any other part of your project.

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