How to scope and shape your research question

Research questions. Should be easy to write, right? You’ve got an idea. You note it down. You go study it.

Being enthusiastic, inquisitive or simply under pressure to find a solution to a problem can mean we’re so busy dashing off to get answers we don’t spend enough time on our question.

These past posts, all of which are activity based, are designed to help you slow down and think carefully about what you are doing when you are crafting a research question.

How to get better at framing research questions

Seven questions to ask about your research question

‘Nobody’s ever asked this before’ and other research misconceptions

I know from my own experience and teaching/supervising research that people always want to get to the good part, which is sorting out their research question. So now we come to the bit you’ve been waiting for. Thinking about how to scope and write your research question. While we heard in the posts linked above that we don’t really think about developing research questions, the beauty of the internet is lots of research enthusiasts have shared their tips and ideas on how to scope your question. I have selected a variety of these and you may want to watch all of them or select those that appeal most to you.

Ray Cooksey outlines the stages of moving from a research problem or idea through to a specific question they can use within their study. In particular he draws attention to how much information may be present as you initially consider your potential study area (15.01 mins)

Cheryl Lentz encourages you to think about the scope and limitations of your study – so from the outset you are thinking about what your research can and cannot do. And how your research question adjusts accordingly (3.34 mins)

You may also want to read Lorelei Lingard’s The Art of Limitations alongside this (found by Felicity Bright).

Unboring Learning talk about how to start a research paper. This may be particularly useful for those who have been set a question or topic area to investigate as part of a college course or degree programme (6.14 mins).

Similarly the University of Cincinnati Libraries ‘what makes a good topic for a paper’ looks at how you find a question and make it interesting to you and others (4.55 mins)

As does Kansas State (this particularly may be useful for those doing research within FE and HE colleges) (4.33 mins).

John Earnshaw nicely explains how your research topic and question is all about finding a gap within knowledge to answer an additional question or angle that hasn’t been covered before. This contains some practical tips on finding your way through the literature and noting the ‘new’ bit you wish to add may be very small or a tweak on what’s been done before. This follows on well from some of the films above which are aimed more at those who are being set a topic area. Earnshaw helps when you have to find your own topic/question (8.09 mins).

Norton Sociology share tips on recognizing a good question and knowing how to answer it (7.25 mins). This film goes with the book ‘You may ask yourself’ (which in turn may fit with some of your reflections about the ‘research process’ shared in earlier blog posts linked above about ‘what is research’?).

Georgia State have a guide on creating a good research question (6.02 mins)

As do the University of Derby, focusing on questions for qualitative research (3.26 mins)

Po-Yi Hung and 
Abigail Popp
have created this primer on how to frame a researchable question. While this guide from Harvard takes you from a general idea to a focused question, as does this Prezi from Charles C Myers Library. Or you could just follow Indiana Jones and the Lost Research Question.

Next up is the final post in this series around creating your research questions. It’s all about refining them once you’ve thought of them – and putting them into practice.

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