Developing your research question

Previous posts have worked through how to create a research question. This post helps you check the question you’ve got is going to work for you.

Having now identified a question, you may be suddenly anxious about whether it’s any good. Even if you aren’t worried you ought to be checking over your question before proceeding with any research. Luckily The University of Birmingham have a series of videos, case studies and reflections that both identify what makes a research question ‘good’ and helps you avoid some of the pitfalls in creating your question. While Pamela Baxter and Susan Jack have written this useful guidance paper Qualitative Case Study Methodology: Study Design and Implementation for Novice Researchers.

We think of piloting our research methods, but rarely our research question. To do this, ask other people what they make of your research idea. Do they understand your question? Is it going to measure what you think it is or could it be misunderstood? Most importantly as you explain your question to other people, do you understand what it is you think you are going to do?

Here’s an often cited example of how you may think you know what you are studying but others may not. Let’s say you want to study how often people watch television in a week. Obvious, yes? We all know what watching television means. Not quite. You as the researcher may have conceptualized ‘watching television’ to mean sitting down and viewing a specific programme. Others may understand exactly the same question as having the TV on in the background while they eat, chat, or get on with homework, hobbies or chores. It may be something the kids are viewing while adults in the house are involved in other activities or vice versa. Perhaps there is more than one television in the home so different programmes are viewed simultaneously. Or maybe there is no television in the home but people watch a friends TV during the time of your study period. Maybe they watch TV programmes online but not on a television and therefore don’t consider that they watch TV at all.

How would you know? Without checking the meanings and values behind your question this may not be detected and in turn affect the methods you use, what you require any participants to do and what data you collect.

Having looked at the literature, reflected on your research question and asked others about its meaning you may want to refine or revise your question. AND THAT IS OKAY. In fact, it’s a great thing to do if the original question you had wasn’t fit for purpose.

Students and colleagues have previously said to me that having decided on a question they cannot change it. This isn’t the case. In the early stages of developing your work it is desirable to adapt your question if it is not clear, if it is very leading, if it isn’t going to measure or explore the area you are interested in, or if you believe you do not have the time, skills or participants to answer it in the time allocated to you. If you don’t think you can answer the question it is better to adapt or even discard it and find something that you know you can do.

Once your research is underway your question may not change but the methods you use or the way you sample or collect data may again have to adapt depending on unforeseen circumstances or participant need.

Having finally decided on your question, keeping this clearly visible mentally or physically throughout your research process can alert you if you are drifting off topic or overreaching yourself. I like to keep my question written on a post it, or on my phone, or stuck up somewhere I can see it when I’m working, to keep me focused on what it is I said I’d be doing.

Jumping ahead, when you come to write up what you did, remember what we learned at the start in White’s paper (covered in this blog post) recommending that you include your research question (and I might add, if space allows, details of how you decided on and developed it) in your final reporting.

It may be difficult to manage a piece of research if a question has been assigned to you and your heart isn’t in the work you’ve been given. You may be able to address this through altering the question slightly (if permitted), honing in on a sub question/topic that does attract your attention, or accepting even if this isn’t interesting you are still learning useful skills that may help you in the future. I’ve certainly worked on and supervised projects that are not within my main area of work or usual interest, but I have tried to find things that do intrigue me – perhaps learning a new method as a consequence of the study area or getting a buzz off a colleague’s enthusiasm even if I’m baffled why they find the topic interesting can help keep me going until the project ends.

You may find that you have too many questions or no clue what you could research. Or know roughly what you’d like to do but have no idea how to go about it. All of that is pretty common in research and in fact is often part of the research journey. Allowing yourself to live with the uncertainty, lack of ideas or overwhelming questions may let you build up or cut down what will then become a research question.

You may be completely flummoxed at the difference between aims, objectives and research questions. But don’t panic because these will be covered in a future post. (As will literature searching for those who struggled with that).

Sometimes you may feel like your research question is controlling you, rather than you being in control of the question. Remember while it is a good idea to be flexible and agile in your work, once you’ve decided on a question you do need to stick to it – even if your main conclusions might be ‘I would not ask this question if I were to do this work again!’

It’s also not unusual for you to dream up what you think is a brilliant question, only to find your participants/community/stakeholders/supervisor etc disagree. Or they might like the question but not how you plan to research it. Listening to their concerns is important and you may want to go back to the blog posts linked above and think about the meanings of research/questions and how others understand and respond to this. It may be your question is confusing, inappropriate or off-putting. Or it may be there’s no problem with your question but something else is causing worry – maybe your supervisor thinks it’s too ambitious. Perhaps the community you want to work with are exhausted by endless researchers who study them but contribute nothing back.

As you get to the end of your study you may be aware that your findings don’t appear to match your original question. This may be because you got a ‘negative result’, or an opposite outcome to the one you were expecting. Or possibly your work drifted or you became interested in something else so studied that instead. You may have had to adapt your work for practical reasons during the research. Although we are led to believe any divergence from an original question and end outcomes is a disaster, most often this is an opportunity. You didn’t find what you expected? Good! Now work out why. Even if the reasons are due to you making errors or unanticipated research disasters, exploring those and how you dealt with them can highlight to yourself and others that you have learned something. Although again if you are keeping your question in mind throughout the research process this should stop you doing irrelevant, off topic, negligent or unethical things that would be a cause for concern. And ensure your ‘teachable moment’ doesn’t morph into ‘career disaster’. The APA has a helpful guide on coping with what they call ‘unexpected findings’.

If you have yet to write your question, or are still uncertain about it, the following guides may give you the confidence you need to find and commit to your idea.
Colorado State University’s stepwise guide to developing a research question
University of the West of England’s guide to picking a research topic
Colorado State’s guide to developing your research question
AUT’s Guide to Writing a research proposal
Centre for Innovation in Research and Teaching’s Guide to writing a good research question

Columbia’s test the scope of your research question

You may have additional resources or teaching exercises to recommend. Or perhaps you have a story to share about how you struggled or succeeded with your research questions. Maybe you have advice about how to write a research question, or can highlight problems with existing guidance on research question design – with ideas on how to fix this. All feedback on this welcome in the comments. The more ideas we can archive the more we can help people create meaningful and useful research questions.

Further Reading
Developing Effective Research Proposals
Developing Research Proposals
Developing Research Questions: a guide for social scientists
Constructing Research Questions doing interesting research
Research Questions

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