Question marks

The other night, I was having a chat to my father about research and methods. He is an academic in engineering, and very much a positivist. I really enjoy discussions with him about research methods and measurement because he approaches thing from such a different perspective. One of the things I love is that even though we can be talking about the same topic, he will always be asking questions I would never think to.

So the other night, we were sitting outside chatting about methods, and he asked me a question that I had never considered. He asked “how can you have 95% confidence or more in your results, based on the data collected and analysed”? It took me a little while to think over this and answer. Particularly because my brain is not wired to think in these statistical ways. In the end, I told dad that it all came down to a good research design. This was one of the rare occasions that Dad and I agreed. There are many factors that go into good research design, and one of the most important is having a good research question.

All too often I come across students who have collected data, have even started analysis, but still don’t know what their research question is. Unsurprisingly, these students, and sometimes staff, get stuck during analysis. I often wonder how they decided to select their research method, and choose their interview/survey questions if they weren’t even sure what they were looking for in the first place. No wonder people get confused and lost when it comes to analysing data!!  How can you say you have an answer to something, when you don’t even know what the question is?

In the second chapter of her book Handling Qualitative Data (2009), Lyn Richards says three questions must be asked, which are:

  1. “What are you asking?
  2. How are you asking it?
  3. What data will you need to provide a good answer?”

These are essential to a good research design. In her chapter, she drills down and goes into more detail with each of these questions and provides a guide on how to go about answering each one. (If you haven’t read the book and are stuck on research design or coming up with a question, I highly recommend that you have a read of this chapter in particular).

I think coming up with a question is easier than what some people think. I’ve listed a series of questions that I often ask students when they struggle to come up with a research question. If you are struggling with a question, I suggest you try answering the questions. You might come up with a research question after only the first one or two which is fine, but I have a number because sometimes it is more difficult depending on your topic or interest.

Q: What is your research question?

Q: What about [topic] interest you?

Q: What about [topic] do you want to explore further?

Q: Complete one of these statements: “I am interested in” “I want to discover” “I want to explore” (there may be others).

Q: Now put a question in front if it eg: What are the [processes; types; ways]  [topic]? OR: What is the [process; way; type etc] [topic] ? OR How do people [topic]?

By asking a series of follow up questions to your main topic, you can help yourself narrow it down, and formulate the question. Once you have a question, play around with it. Try and phrase it in lots of different ways. See which one stands true for you. It can take time, and you need to be comfortable with it. It might even change during the course of your research.

Even when designing questionnaires and interview guides, the phrasing of a question can make a big difference. This talks about the impact the phrasing of a question can have.

I also suggest you consider your personal relationship with your topic and question. Ask yourself, why this topic? It might be because of a personal experience, or the experience of close family or friends. Then write down why you chose that particular question over the others. No-one has to see the reason. It is just for yourself. You will find that it will come in handy when it is time for you write your methodology chapter.

How are you going coming up with a research question? Do you think it is useful to have? What helped you come up with one?

10 thoughts on “The Importance of the Research Question (and how to discover yours)

  1. Reblogged this on Fabrication Nation and commented:
    Some of the best questions come from I wonder. It’s important to avoid why questions. Questions must of course be open-ended, but not too open-ended. Maybe questions answer the “To see or not to see” aspect of research and thus make all the difference.


  2. Great post Anuja! 🙂 I’m sure you would agree that everything you do in your research stems from your research question; the methodology and methods you choose are guided by the type of question you are asking. You should post it in big letters on your wall and keep coming back to it. There are so many interesting things to distract you during data analysis (if you are have a good research design as you suggest) so it is useful to keep coming back to your research question to stay on track. Research questions do change during your research, be flexible. Mine even changed slightly after my examiner comments came back before the final submission.


  3. Great post Anuja. Sometimes the fundamentals are the hardest things to get right. I guess the other difficult thing is to develop a research question that contributes to your field and moves it forward in some way. This video shows 4 attempts at developing a good research question – it’s really simple but quite illuminating –


  4. Great post Anuja. I learnt a lot from your article. The strategy you used to present this is fantastic. It is very simple to understand, I am from SriLanka and online MPM from Roehampton University. What’s your country and where are you living? Greetings from Roshen Desilva


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