When you’re preparing to conduct research, creating the right question in the correct way is critical for producing the study and collecting the data you need for analysis. Questions that are too broad don’t yield useful information. Too narrow, and your questions may be impossible to answer. Fortunately, we know quite a bit about writing questions, and we’re ready to help you write your own effective research questions.
Let’s discuss research questions in general, what makes a question good, and the steps to writing a quality question. Then, we’ll provide some research question examples to make everything crystal clear, so you have everything you need to write your own.
A research question is similar to a hypothesis. It is a question based on an issue or topic you are interested in or need to be answered as part of a larger research strategy. Your research question is central to your investigation and clearly states your focus and objective. It is the main question your study is set out to answer.
Let’s take a deeper look at what a good research question should be. Brian Hulley, in the book Designing Clinical Research, put forward a model you can follow for writing a good research question. It’s called the FINER model, which is an acronym for feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant.
Let’s look at each of these characteristics further:
Your research question should be very specific and focused on a single topic of investigation. It should be answerable, in-depth, and able to be put into context with existing literature on the subject. A good research question is realistic in time, scope, and budget. You must be able to work within these constraints to answer the question.
There are two main types of research questions: quantitative and qualitative. Depending upon the goal of your research, you’ll likely need to develop questions of each type.
Quantitative research questions do not have definitive “yes” or “no” answers, but instead, they result in quantities, numbers, or values. They are very precise and usually include the target population, dependent and independent variables, and the research design. Quantitative research questions yield answers that are measurable, objective, and reliable.
Quantitative research questions can be categorized into three types: descriptive, comparative, and relationship.
Qualitative research questions are more flexible and adaptable than their quantitative counterparts. They are questions that seek to explain, explore, or discover. The data you collect to answer these questions is completely subjective. Qualitative research questions are frequently “why” questions.
There are five categories of qualitative research questions: contextual, descriptive, evaluation, explanatory, and exploratory.
Now that we know the criteria for writing a research question and the two main categories of questions, it’s time to examine how to write your own effective research question. Imagine the process as an inverted pyramid, with each step getting smaller as you reach the fine point—your final research question.
Step one is choosing a broad topic for your research question. Choose something that you are interested in learning more about. It should align with your work, area of study, country's culture, or general interests.
Your preliminary research should include a review of previously published research on your broad topic. Find out what the current thinking is on your topic so you can approach your question in an informed manner. Look for knowledge gaps in the existing research that can guide the formulation of your research question.
Take your existing topic research, narrow it down, and focus on a more specific area to study. Look more closely at any knowledge gaps you’ve identified or examine findings that you can extend or complement with further research. Don’t be afraid to challenge existing research with your research question. This is the time to commit to the topic of your question.
Write your potential research questions. For each one, go through and ensure that they meet the characteristics of a good research question through the FINER model. This will lead you to identify the best questions. Don’t worry about question structure just yet, we’ll cover that shortly.
Who will be interested in your research questions? Refine your questions again to focus on what will be of interest or help to that group.
Are your questions clear, focused, concise, complex, and arguable? Do they meet the FINER model criteria? Which question best meets your objectives? This is the time to choose your final research question.
The next step, now that you have identified your research question, is to structure the questions appropriately. The proper question structure will clarify your main concepts and focus. Your question may not fit perfectly into a framework, but use at least part of one to guide you in creating your final question structure.
There are two frameworks used to structure research questions: PICOT and PEO. The PEO (population, exposure, outcome) framework is more suitable for qualitative research questions, and PICOT (population, intervention, comparison, outcome, time frame) is quantitative and widely used for clinical research questions.
Population, patient, or problem
Intervention or indicator being studied
Outcome of interest
Time frame of study
Population being researched
Exposure to preexisting conditions
Outcome of interest
Now that you’re ready to polish your research question, we have a few last tips for writing effective research questions:
Provide specific information that allows your reader to understand your purpose without needing any additional information.
Provide a narrow scope that can be fully addressed in your study.
Express your questions in as few words as possible. The answer to your question should not be a simple “yes” or “no.” It should require an analysis of ideas from a variety of sources to answer completely.
Potential answers to your research question should stand up to peer review and be reproducible by others.
Now that we’ve covered what you need to know about writing them, let’s look at some research question examples:
Writing effective research questions is critical in providing goals for your research studies. By writing questions that meet the FINER criteria, you clearly state your objectives, focus, purpose, and scope of your research.
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