How to Write a Research Question: Types, Steps, and Examples

How to Write a Research Question: Types, Steps, and Examples
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Most, if not all, studies and research start with formulating a research question. Unfortunately, researchers can face difficulties in trying to convert what they see as legitimate, relevant issues into sound research questions (Doody & Bailey, 2016). Additionally, despite the importance of properly constructing these questions, there exists little support on how to create an innovative research question (Sandberg & Alvesson, 2011).

While the ability to create good questions is not an innate skill, it can be cultivated in researchers (Lipowski, 2008). This article aims to guide researchers in the pursuit of creating good research questions by first providing a research question’s definition and importance and then discussing methods commonly used in constructing these questions.

How to Write a Research Question Table of Contents

  1. What is a Research Question?
  2. Types of Research Questions
  3. Steps to Developing a Good Research Question
  4. Examples of Good and Bad Research Questions
  5. Important Points to Keep in Mind in Creating a Research Question

What is a Research Question?

A research question is a question that a study or research project aims to answer. This question often addresses an issue or a problem, which, through analysis and interpretation of data, is answered in the study’s conclusion. In most studies, the research question is written so that it outlines various aspects of the study, including the population and variables to be studied and the problem the study addresses.

As their name implies, research questions are often grounded on research. As a result, these questions are dynamic; this means researchers can change or refine the research question as they review related literature and develop a framework for the study. While many research projects will focus on a single research question, larger studies often use more than one research question.

Importance of the research question

The primary importance of framing the research question is that it narrows down a broad topic of interest into a specific area of study (Creswell, 2014). Research questions, along with hypotheses, also serve as a guiding framework for research. These questions also specifically reveal the boundaries of the study, setting its limits, and ensuring cohesion.

Moreover, the research question has a domino effect on the rest of the study. These questions influence factors, such as the research methodology, sample size, data collection, and data analysis (Lipowski, 2008).

Types of Research Questions

Research questions can be classified into different categories, depending on the type of research to be done. Knowing what type of research one wants to do—quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-methods studies—can help in determining the best type of research question to use.

Doody and Bailey (2016) suggest a number of common types of research questions, as outlined below.

Quantitative research questions

Quantitative research questions are precise. These questions typically include the population to be studied, dependent and independent variables, and the research design to be used. They are usually framed and finalized at the start of the study (Berger, 2015).

Quantitative research questions also establish a link between the research question and the research design. Moreover, these questions are not answerable with “yes” or “no” responses. As a result, quantitative research questions don’t use words such as “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.”

Quantitative research questions usually seek to understand particular social, familial, or educational experiences or processes that occur in a particular context and/or location (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). They can be further categorized into three types: descriptive, comparative, and relationship.

  • Descriptive research questions aim to measure the responses of a study’s population to one or more variables or describe variables that the research will measure. These questions typically begin with “what.”
  • Comparative research questions aim to discover the differences between two or more groups for an outcome variable. These questions can be causal, as well. For instance, the researcher may compare a group where a certain variable is involved and another group where that variable is not present.
  • Relationship research questions seek to explore and define trends and interactions between two or more variables. These questions often include both dependent and independent variables and use words such as “association” or “trends.”

Qualitative research questions

Qualitative research questions may concern broad areas of research or more specific areas of study. Similar to quantitative research questions, qualitative research questions are linked to research design. Unlike their quantitative counterparts, though, qualitative research questions are usually adaptable, non-directional, and more flexible (Creswell, 2013). As a result, studies using these questions generally aim to “discover,” “explain,” or “explore.”

Ritchie et al. (2014) and Marshall and Rossman (2011) have also further categorized qualitative research questions into a number of types, as listed below:

  • Contextual research questions seek to describe the nature of what already exists.
  • Descriptive research questions attempt to describe a phenomenon.
  • Emancipatory research questions aim to produce knowledge that allows for engagement in social action, especially for the benefit of disadvantaged people.
  • Evaluative research questions assess the effectiveness of existing methods or paradigms.
  • Explanatory research questions seek to expound on a phenomenon or examine reasons for and associations between what exists.
  • Exploratory research questions investigate little-known areas of a particular topic.
  • Generative research questions aim to provide new ideas for the development of theories and actions.
  • Ideological research questions are used in research that aims to advance specific ideologies of a position.

The following table illustrates the differences between quantitative and qualitative research questions.

Example: Factors that increase the likelihood of childhood anxiety include peer pressure, genetics, and higher intelligence levels.
Topicchildhood anxiety
Key aspects of the topic to be discussedpeer pressure, parental education, and higher intelligence levels

Mixed-methods studies

Mixed-methods studies typically require a set of both quantitative and qualitative research questions. Separate questions are appropriate when the mixed-methods study focuses on the significance and differences in quantitative and qualitative methods and not on the study’s integrative component (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2010).

Researchers also have the option to develop a single mixed-methods research question. According to Tashakkori and Teddlie (2010), this suggests an integrative process or component between the study’s quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Steps to Developing a Good Research Question

Broadly, a good research question should be relevant, decided, and meaningful (Stone, 2002). Creating a research question can be a tricky process, but there is a specific method you can follow to ease the process. The steps to this method are outlined below:

1. Start with a broad topic.

A broad topic provides writers with plenty of avenues to explore in their search for a viable research question. Techniques to help you develop a topic into subtopics and potential research questions include brainstorming and concept mapping. These techniques can organize your thoughts so you can identify connections and relevant themes within a broad topic.

When searching for a topic, it’s wise to choose an area of study that you are genuinely interested in, since your interest in a topic will affect your motivation levels throughout your research. It’s also wise to consider the interests being addressed recently by the research community, as this may affect your paper’s chances of getting published.

Source: National Science Foundation

2. Do preliminary research to learn about topical issues.

Once you have picked a topic, you can start doing preliminary research. This initial stage of research accomplishes two goals. First, a preliminary review of related literature allows you to discover issues that are currently being discussed by scholars and fellow researchers. This way, you get up-to-date, relevant knowledge on your topic.

Second, a preliminary review of related literature allows you to spot existing gaps or limitations in existing knowledge of your topic. With a certain amount of fine-tuning, you can later use these gaps as the focus of your research question.

Moreover, according to Farrugia et al. (2010), certain institutions that provide grants encourage applicants to conduct a systematic review of available studies and evidence to see if a similar, recent study doesn’t already exist, before applying for a grant.

3. Narrow down your topic and determine potential research questions.

Once you have gathered enough knowledge on the topic you want to pursue, you can start focusing on a more specific area of study. One option is to focus on gaps in existing knowledge or recent literature. Referred to by Sandberg and Alvesson (2011) as “gap-spotting,” this method involves constructing research questions out of identified limitations in literature and overlooked areas of study. Similarly, researchers can choose research questions that extend or complement the findings of existing literature.

Another way of identifying and constructing research questions: problematization (Sandberg & Alvesson, 2011). As a methodology for constructing research questions, problematization aims to challenge and scrutinize assumptions that support others’ and the researcher’s theoretical position. This means constructing research questions that challenge your views or knowledge of the area of study.

Lipowski (2008), on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of taking into consideration the researcher’s personal experiences in the process of developing a research question. Researchers who are also practitioners, for instance, can reflect on problematic areas of their practice. Patterns and trends in practice may also provide new insights and potential ideas for research questions.

4. Evaluate the soundness of your research question.

Your initial research and review of related literature will have produced some interesting questions that seem like they’re worth pursuing. However, not all interesting questions make for sound research questions. Keep in mind that a research question draws its answer or conclusion through an analysis of evidence.

Hulley et al. (2007) suggest using a set of criteria- known as the “FINER” criteria-to find out if you have a good research question. The FINER criteria are outlined below:

F – Feasible
A good research question is feasible, which means that the question is well within the researcher’s ability to investigate. Researchers should be realistic about the scale of their research as well as their ability to collect data and complete the research with their skills and the resources available to them. It’s also wise to have a contingency plan in place in case problems arise.

I – Interesting
The ideal research question is interesting not only to the researcher but also to their peers and community. This interest boosts the researcher’s motivation to see the question answered.

N – Novel
Your research question should be developed to bring new insights to the field of study you are investigating. The question may confirm or extend previous findings on the topic you are researching, for instance.

E – Ethical
This is one of the more important considerations of making a research question. Your research question and your subsequent study must be something that review boards and the appropriate authorities will approve.

R – Relevant
Aside from being interesting and novel, the research question should be relevant to the scientific community and people involved in your area of study. If possible, your research question should also be relevant to the public’s interest.

5. Construct your research question properly.

Research questions should be structured properly to ensure clarity. There are a number of frameworks that you can use for properly constructing a research question. The two most commonly used frameworks are explained below.

PICOT framework

The PICOT framework was first introduced in 1995 by Richardson et al. Using the PICOT framework; research questions can be constructed to address important elements of the study, including the population to be studied, the expected outcomes, and the time it takes to achieve the outcome. With these elements, the framework is more commonly used in clinical research and evidence-based studies.

  • P – population, patients, or problem
  • I – intervention or indicator being studied
  • C – comparison group
  • O – outcome of interest
  • T – timeframe of the study

The sample research question below illustrates the PICOT framework and its elements:

 In-TextElements Format for Reference SectionBookJournalConference ProceedingsThesis/DissertationWebpage
APAParenthetical: (Author's Last Name, Year)

Example: (Smith, 2009)

Narrative:
"Author (Year) stated that..."

Example: Smith (2008) stated that...
Author(s) Name(s):
Last Name, F. M.

Journal or Book Title:
Italicized sentence form

Chapter or Article Title:
Title in sentence form

Author(s) Name(s). (Year). Italicized title in sentence form. Publisher. URL or DOI. Author(s) Name(s). (Year). Chapter title in sentence form. Journal Title, Volume #(Issue #), DOI or URL. Author(s) Name(s). Title of contribution in sentence form. [Type of contribution]. Conference Name, City, Country. DOI or URL when applicable.

Example:

Dodson, J. (2005, April). Faith and medicine [Conference session]. Medical Sociology 2005, Austin, Texas.
Author(s) Name(s). (Year). Italicized Title of Thesis/Dissertation.[Type]. Name of Institution. Location.

Example:

Dough, K. (2009). The future rationale of post-modernist art [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Academy of Art University. San Francisco, California.
Author(s) Name(s). Italicized article title. Website Title in Title Case. Retrieved Month Day, Year, from URL.

Example:

Coyne, J. (2020, June 29). WaPo editor emits bigoted and hateful tweets, but will she be disciplined as others have been? Why Evolution Is True. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/29/wapo-editor-emits-hateful-tweets-but-will-she-be-disciplined-in-the-same-way-as-others/
MLAParenthetical:
(Author Page)

Example: (Smith 252)

Narrative:
Author...(Page)

Example:
Smith stated that it is not the case (252).
Author(s) Name(s):
Last Name, First Name M.I.

Journal and Book Title:
Italicized Title of Work in Title Case

Chapter and Article Title:
"Title Form in Parentheses"


Author(s) Name(s). Italicized Title of Book in Title Form. Publisher, Year of publication.

Example:

Agarwal, Nikita, et al. Friends and Foes of Harry Potter: Names Decoded. Texas World Publishing, 2005.
Author name(s). “Article Title.” Title of container, contributors, version, numbers, date of publication, location. Title of database, DOI or URL.

Example:

Kind, Bradford. “A Critical Analysis of Analyses”. Hypothetical Journal, vol. 2, no. 16, Winter 2019, pp. 108-111.
Author(s) Name(s). "Title of Work." Italicized Title of the Conference, Location, Date. Edited by Editors Names, Publisher, Year, pp. page numbers.

Example:

Smith, John. "A Financial Analysis of Terror Groups." International Trade and Public Policy Conference 2005, Los Angeles, California. Edited by Smith J.D.,et al., pp. 261-283.
Author Name. Italicized Title of Work in Title Case. Year. Institution. Type. Italicized Database if applicable, URL.

Example:

Ryan, John. On the Financial Analysis of Terror Groups. 2007. Harvard University. PhD dissertation. TheDisDatabase, thedisbase.xxx.xxx/xxx
Last name of author, first name. “Title of page/document”. Title of overall webpage, date, URL.

Example:

Hsieh, Henry F., and Jane Krause. The Fishing Roots of Phishing. 13 Oct. 2004: https://www.obviousobserver.com/xxxx/xx/x.
Chicago/TurabianAuthor-Date Style:
(Author's Surname Year, Pages)

Example: (Smith 2009, 252)

The notes and bibliography style uses superscripts.
Full Footnote Citation:
Author(s) Name(s). Year. Italicized Title of Work. Location: Publisher

Example:

Agarwal, Nikita, Chitra Agarwal, and Benjamin Vincent. Friends and Foes of Harry Potter: Names Decoded. Texas World Publishing, 2005.

Shortened Footnote Citation:
Last Name. Italicized Shortened Title, page/pages.

Example:
Slay. Whining About, 34-39.

Chapter and Article Title:
"Title of Work in Title Case Enclosed in Parentheses."

Journal and Book Title:
Italicized Title in Title Case

Full Citation:
Author(s) Name(s). Year. Italicized Title of Work. Location: Publisher

Example:

Agarwal, Nikita, Chitra Agarwal, and Benjamin Vincent. Friends and Foes of Harry Potter: Names Decoded. Texas World Publishing, 2005.

Shortened Citation:
Last Name. Italicized Shortened Title, page/pages.

Example:
Slay. Whining About, 34-39.

Bibliography Entry:
Last Name(s), Preferred Name(s). Italicized Title of Work in Title Case. Location: Publisher, Year.

Example:
Slay, Jerry. Just Whining About. California: Garden Variety Publishing House, 2005.
Full Citation:
Author(s) Name(s). "Title of Work in Title Case." In Italicized Title of Journal Volume, no. issue # (Year), page range. DOI

Example:

Hoekstra, Hopi E., and Jerry A. Coyne. "The Locus of Evolution: Evo Devo and the Genetics of Adaptation." Evolution 61, no. 5 (2017), 995-1016. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1558-5646.2007.00105.x.
Last name, First name. “Title of the Paper.” Paper presented at the Title of the Conference, Location of Conference, Month Year.

Example:

Smith, Joe. "Sleepwalking and Lucid Dreaming." Paper presented at the Health Sleep Conference, Los Angeles, California. August 2019.
Last Name, First Name. "Tite of Work in Title Case." Type., Institution, Location, Year. Database.

Example:

Navarro-Garcia, Guadalupe. “Integrating Social Justice Values in Educational Leadership: A Study of African American and Black University Presidents.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2016. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
"Webpage Title," Website Title, accessed Month Day, Year, URL.

Example:

“History,” Columbia University, accessed May 15, 2017, http://www.columbia.edu/content/history.html.
IEEEUses numbered brackets in the form of [#].

Examples: Smith [4] stated that... or ...was extensive [4].
Author(s) Name(s):
F. Last Name

Journal and Books:
Italicized Title of Work

Article or Chapter (including patents and conference paper):
"Title in Title Case in Parentheses"
F. M. Last Name, Italicized Title in Title Case. Location: Publisher, Year.

Example:

J. M. Ho, Signal Processing and Filters. Belmont, CA: Happy Press, 2009.
[n] Author name(s), "Title of Work," Journal Title, vol #, no. #, Abbreviated Month., Page(s), Year of Publication.

Example:

[6] A. Lutter and T. Silva, "Logic and Dialethism," Journal of Formal Systems, vol. 3, no. 5, Jan., pp. 8-9, 2001.
[n] Author name(s), "Title of paper," in Abbrev. Title of Conf. Proceedings, Place of Conference/Publication, (volume number if available), Year (only if not included in the title), Page(s)

Example:

[6] A. Y. Tsieh, "Legal loopholes in hoarding laws," in 2nd Local Conf. on Bus. Pol., Clark, Pampanga, March 2013
[n]  Author name(s), "Title of Work," M. S. Thesis or Ph.D. diss., School, City, State, Year.

Example:

[5] H. Johns, "Category Theory and Computing," M. S. Thesis, City University of New York, New York, New York, 2018.
[n] Author Name(s), "Title of Work," Title of Source, Year of Publication. [Online]. Available: URL. [Accessed Month Day, Year].

Example:

[1] Consumer Rights Charter, "A 2017 Review of Consumer Rights Issues in the United States," Consumer Rights Charter, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.CRC1.org/xx/xxx... [Accessed November 3, 2020].

PEO framework

Like the PICOT framework, the PEO framework is commonly used in clinical studies as well. However, this framework is more useful for qualitative research questions. This framework includes these elements:

  • P – population being studied
  • E – exposure to preexisting conditions
  • O – outcome of interest

Below is a sample research question in the PEO framework:

Journal Article Reporting Standards (JARS)

Information recommended for inclusion in manuscripts that report new data collections regardless of research design
Paper section and topicDescription
1. Title and title pageIdentify variables and theoretical issues under investigation and the relationship between them;
Author note contains acknowledgment of special circumstances.
2. AbstractProblem under investigation;
Participants or subjects; specifying pertinent characteristics; in animal research, include genus and species
Study method;
Findings, including effect sizes and confidence intervals and/or statistical significance levels;
Conclusions and the implications or applications
3. IntroductionThe importance of the problem;
Review of relevant scholarship;
Specific hypotheses and objectives;
How hypotheses and research design relate to one another
4. Method
Participant characteristicsEligibility and exclusion criteria;
Major demographic characteristics as well as important topic-specific characteristics.
Sampling proceduresProcedures for selecting participants;
Settings and locations where data were collected;
Agreements and payments made to participants;
Institutional review board agreements, ethical standards met, safety monitoring
Sample size, power, and precisionIntended sample size;
Actual sample size;
How sample size was determined
Measures and covariatesDefinitions of all primary and secondary measures and covariates;
Methods used to collect data;
Methods used to enhance the quality of measurements;
Information on validated or ad hoc instruments created for individual studies
Research designWhether conditions were manipulated or naturally observed;
Type of research design.
5. Results
Participant flowTotal number of participants;
Flow of participants through each stage of the study
RecruitmentDates defining the periods of recruitment and repeated measurements or follow-up
Statistics and data
analysis
Information concerning problems with statistical assumptions and/or data distributions that could affect the validity of findings;
Missing data, etc.
Statistical software program, if specialized procedures were used
Report any other analyses performed,
Ancillary analysesDiscussion of implications of ancillary analyses for statistical error rates.
6. DiscussionStatement of support or nonsupport for all original hypotheses;
Similarities and differences between the results and work of others
Interpretation of the results;
Generalizability (external validity) of the findings;
Discussion of implications for future research, program, or policy.

Other commonly used frameworks for research questions include the SPIDER (Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type) and CLIP (Client group, Location of provided service, Improvement/Information/Innovation, Professionals) frameworks. Aside from helping researchers properly structure research questions, these frameworks also help refine research results and improve the focus of data analysis.

Examples of Good and Bad Research Questions

The following examples of good and bad research questions can further guide researchers on properly constructing a research question.

Example no. 1

Bad: How does social media affect people’s behavior?
Good: What effect does the daily use of YouTube have on the attention span of children aged under 16?

The first research question is considered bad because of the vagueness of “social media” as a concept and the question’s lack of specificity. A good research question should be specific and focused, and its answer should be discovered through data collection and analysis.

Example no. 2

Bad: Has there been an increase in childhood obesity in the US in the past 10 years?
Good: How have school intervention programs and parental education levels affected the rate of childhood obesity among 1st to 6th-grade students?

In the second example, the first research question is not ideal because it’s too simple, and it’s easily answerable by a “yes” or “no.” The second research question is more complicated; to answer it, the researcher must collect data, perform in-depth data analysis, and form an argument that leads to further discussion.

Important Points to Keep in Mind in Creating a Research Question

Developing the right research question is a critical first step in the research process. The key points outlined below should help researchers in the pursuit:

  • The development of a research question is an iterative process that involves continuously updating one’s knowledge on the topic and refining ideas at all stages (Maxwell, 2013).
  • Remain updated on current trends, state-of-the-art research studies, and technological advances in the field of study you are pursuing.
  • Make the research question as specific and concise as possible to ensure clarity. Avoid using words or terms that don’t add to the meaning of the research question.
  • Aside from doing a literature review, seek the input of experts in the field, mentors, and colleagues. Such inputs can prove beneficial not only for the research question but also for creating the rest of the study.
  • Finally, refrain from committing the two most common mistakes in framing research questions: posing a question as an anticipated contribution and framing a question as a method (Mayo et al., 2013).

References:

  1. Berger, R. (2015). Now I see it, now I don’t: Researcher’s position and reflexivity in qualitative research. Qualitative Research, 15 (2), 219-234. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794112468475
  2. Creswell, J.W. (2013). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Creswell, J.W. (2014). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
  4. Doody, O., & Bailey, M. E. (2016). Setting a research question, aim, and objective. Nurse Researcher23 (4). https://journals.rcni.com/doi/pdfplus/10.7748/nr.23.4.19.s5
  5. Farrugia, P., Petrisor, B. A., Farrokhyar, F., & Bhandari, M. (2010). Research questions, hypotheses, and objectives. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 53 (4), 278. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912019/
  6. Lipowski, E. E. (2008). Developing great research questions. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy65 (17), 1667-1670. https://academic.oup.com/ajhp/article-abstract/65/17/1667/5128061
  7. Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2014). Designing qualitative research. Sage publications. Google Books
  8. Mayo, N., Asano, M., & Barbic, S.P. (2013). When is a research question not a research question? Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 45 (6), 513-518. https://doi.org/10.2340/16501977-1150
  9. Patnaik, S., & Swaroop, S. (2019). Hypothesizing the research question. Indian Journal of Public Health Research & Development, 10 (11). http://www.indianjournals.com/ijor.aspx?target=ijor:ijphrd&volume=10&issue=11&article=097
  10. Richardson, W. S., Wilson, M. C., Nishikawa, J., & Hayward, R. S. (1995). The well-built clinical question: a key to evidence-based decisions. Acp j club123 (3), A12-3. https://doi.org/10.7326/ACPJC-1995-123-3-A12
  11. Ritchie, J., Lewis, J., Nicholls, C. M., & Ormston, R. (Eds.). (2013). Qualitative Research Practice: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.  http://jbposgrado.org/icuali/Qualitative%20Research%20practice.pdf
  12. Sandberg, J., & Alvesson, M. (2011). Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization? Organization18 (1), 23-44. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350508410372151
  13. Stone, P. (2002). Deciding upon and refining a research question. Palliative Medicine, 16, 265–267.  https://doi.org/10.1191/0269216302pm562xx
  14. Tashakkori, A., & Teddlie, C. (Eds.). (2010). Sage Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social & Behavioral Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781506335193

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