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How to write a research question

Last updated

7 February 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

The research process starts with creating an excellent research question. This not only gives you a clear goal to focus on, but it also directs your entire investigation. Therefore, it is vital to understand how to compose a good research question to help you generate new ideas for your industry.

In this article, we take an in-depth look at what a research question is, the different types of research questions, and how to write one (with examples). Read on to get started with your thesis, dissertation, or research paper.

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What is a research question?

A research question articulates exactly what you want to learn from your research. It stems directly from your research objectives, and you will arrive at an answer through data analysis and interpretation.

However, it is not that simple to write a research question—even when you know the question you intend to answer with your study. The main characteristics of a good research question are:

  • Feasible. You need to have the resources and abilities to examine the question, collect the data, and give answers.

  • Interesting. Create research questions that offer fascinating insights into your industry.

  • Novel. Research questions have to offer something new within your field of study.

  • Ethical. The research question topic should be approved by the relevant authorities and review boards.

  • Relevant. Your research question should lead to visible changes in society or your industry.

Usually, you write one single research question to guide your entire research paper. The answer becomes the thesis statement—the central position of your argument. A dissertation or thesis, on the other hand, may require multiple problem statements and research questions. However, they should be connected and focused on a specific problem.

Importance of the research question

A research question acts as a guide for your entire study. It serves two vital purposes:

  • to determine the specific issue your research paper addresses

  • to identify clear objectives

Therefore, it helps split your research into small steps that you need to complete to provide answers.

Your research question will also provide boundaries for your study, which help set limits and ensure cohesion.

Finally, it acts as a frame of reference for assessing your work. Bear in mind that research questions can evolve, shift, and change during the early stages of your study or project.

Types of research questions

The type of research you are conducting will dictate the type of research question to use. Primarily, research questions are grouped into three distinct categories of study:

  • qualitative

  • quantitative

  • mixed-method

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Quantitative research questions

The number-one rule of quantitative research questions is that they are precise. They mainly include:

Therefore, you must frame and finalize quantitative research questions before starting the study.

Equally, a quantitative research question creates a link between itself and the research design. These questions cannot be answered with simple 'yes' or' no' responses, so they begin with words like 'does', 'do', 'are', and 'is'.

Quantitative research questions can be divided into three categories:

  • Relationship research questions usually leverage words such as 'trends' and 'association' because they include independent and dependent variables. They seek to define or explore trends and interactions between multiple variables.

  • Comparative research questions tend to analyze the differences between different groups to find an outcome variable. For instance, you may decide to compare two distinct groups where a specific variable is present in one and absent in the other.

  • Descriptive research questions usually start with the word 'what' and aim to measure how a population will respond to one or more variables.

Qualitative research questions

Like quantitative research questions, these questions are linked to the research design. However, qualitative research questions may deal with a specific or broad study area. This makes them more flexible, very adaptable, and usually non-directional.

Use qualitative research questions when your primary aim is to explain, discover, or explore.

There are seven types of qualitative research questions:

  • Explanatory research questions investigate particular topic areas that aren't well known.

  • Contextual research questions describe the workings of what is already in existence.

  • Evaluative research questions examine the effectiveness of specific paradigms or methods.

  • Ideological research questions aim to advance existing ideologies.

  • Descriptive research questions describe an event.

  • Generative research questions help develop actions and theories by providing new ideas.

  • Emancipatory research questions increase social action engagement, usually to benefit disadvantaged people.

Mixed-methods studies

With mixed-methods studies, you combine qualitative and quantitative research elements to get answers to your research question. This approach is ideal when you need a more complete picture. through a blend of the two approaches.

Mixed-methods research is excellent in multidisciplinary settings, societal analysis, and complex situations. Consider the following research question examples, which would be ideal candidates for a mixed-methods approach

  • How can non-voter and voter beliefs about democracy (qualitative) help explain Town X election turnout patterns (quantitative)?

  • How does students’ perception of their study environment (quantitative) relate to their test score differences (qualitative)?

Developing a strong research question—a step-by-step guide

Research questions help break up your study into simple steps so you can quickly achieve your objectives and find answers. However, how do you develop a good research question? Here is our step-by-step guide:

1. Choose a topic

The first step is to select a broad research topic for your study. Pick something within your expertise and field that interests you. After all, the research itself will stem from the initial research question.

2. Conduct preliminary research

Once you have a broad topic, dig deeper into the problem by researching past studies in the field and gathering requirements from stakeholders if you work in a business setting.

Through this process, you will discover articles that mention areas not explored in that field or products that didn’t resonate with people’s expectations in a particular industry. For instance, you could explore specific topics that earlier research failed to study or products that failed to meet user needs.

3. Keep your audience in mind

Is your audience interested in the particular field you want to study? Are the research questions in your mind appealing and interesting to the audience? Defining your audience will help you refine your research question and ensure you pick a question that is relatable to your audience.

4. Generate a list of potential questions

Ask yourself numerous open-ended questions on the topic to create a potential list of research questions. You could start with broader questions and narrow them down to more specific ones. Don’t forget that you can challenge existing assumptions or use personal experiences to redefine research issues.

5. Review the questions

Evaluate your list of potential questions to determine which seems most effective. Ensure you consider the finer details of every question and possible outcomes. Doing this helps you determine if the questions meet the requirements of a research question.

6. Construct and evaluate your research question

Consider these two frameworks when constructing a good research question: PICOT and PEO. 

PICOT stands for:

  • P: Problem or population

  • I: Indicator or intervention to be studied

  • C: Comparison groups

  • O: Outcome of interest

  • T: Time frame

PEO stands for:

  • P: Population being studied

  • E: Exposure to any preexisting conditions

  • O: Outcome of interest

To evaluate your research question once you’ve constructed it, ask yourself the following questions:

Is it clear?

Your study should produce precise data and observations. For qualitative studies, the observations need to be delineable across categories. Quantitative studies must have measurable and empirical data.

Is it specific and focused?

An excellent research question must be specific enough to ensure your testing yields objective results. General or open-ended research questions are often ambiguous and subject to different kinds of interpretation.

Is it sufficiently complex?

Your research needs to yield substantial and consequential results to warrant the study. Merely supporting or reinforcing an existing paper is not good enough.

Examples of good research questions

A robust research question actively contributes to a specific body of knowledge; it is a question that hasn’t been answered before within your research field.

Here are some examples of good and bad research questions:

  • Good: How effective are A and B policies at reducing the rates of Z?

  • Bad: Is A or B a better policy?

The first is more focused and researchable because it isn't based on value judgment. The second fails to give clear criteria for answering the question.

  • Good: What is the effect of daily Twitter use on the attention span of college students?

  • Bad: What is the effect of social media use on people's minds?

The first includes specific and well-defined concepts, which the second lacks.

Ensure all terms within your research question have precise meanings. Avoid vague or general language that makes the topic too broad.

The bottom line

The success of any research starts with formulating the right questions that ensure you collect the most insightful data. A good research question will showcase the objectives of your systematic investigation and emphasize specific contexts.

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