How to get better at framing and creating research questions

Open a research methods book and most begin by noting you need a research question to get started. Once you’ve got a question, all else should follow.

But what doesn’t happen as much as it should is detailed, dedicated, teaching about what research questions mean, how we arrive at them, how we hone and refine them, how we use them, and what happens if something goes awry with that process.

I realized some while ago I had been encouraging people to ‘think of a research question’, focusing all my attention onto subsequent training about what methods they might select, how those methods worked and analysis that would arise from method choice.

But that’s not the same as a truly in depth exploration of what research questions mean, a careful and dedicated period of time creating questions, or any space to adapt, improve or discard them.

True, some students and colleagues (and even myself) have clear and pressing research questions that have seemingly arrived, fully formed, in their imagination – just ready to roll out. But most of the time we begin with an idea and that idea needs to be thought about, tested and tailored into a question that drives the research.

Finding the time and space to really drill into this isn’t easy. Methods courses, where taught, tend to rush off with the action of ‘doing’ research, assuming you’ve already got your question sorted (excluding, possibly, a slight edit for clarity). Since our research questions will shape all that follows (including if our work succeeds or not) you would think we would focus more on this than other areas, but we don’t.

Perhaps as you are reading this post you might consider what, if any, dedicated and detailed teaching you had on creating research questions – or if you are a tutor, how much attention do you pay this in your own classes?

I’m mindful people are often so eager to get started with their research they don’t want to stop and think about what they are planning to do. Alternatively there may be an active discouragement by managers, supervisors or funders from doing this and ‘holding up’ work.

Or it may be those teaching or overseeing research are unaware they ought to be focusing on the early stages of research as much, or more, than later phases. However, if we stop, pause and think a bit about what it is we’re doing (or expecting others to do) we have a better chance of ensuring our work is accurate, empowering and ethical.

Reflecting on what we mean by ‘research questions’?
[This should take you 2 hours to do. You may want to make notes on the activities set out below and reflect on them later, either alone or in dicussion with friends/colleagues]

You might be expecting to begin our thinking about research questions by…..thinking up a question you can use in your own work.

Don’t panic. We will get to that. But first I would invite you to spend time reading and reflecting on Patrick White’s recent paper Who’s afraid of research questions? The neglect of research questions in the methods literature and a call for question-led methods teaching where White opens his paper by astutely noting “Given the central role that research questions play in the research process, it is surprising that, until recently, they have received relatively little attention in the methods literature. It is perhaps even more surprising that many reports of empirical research published in academic journals do not specify their research questions or even any explicit aims or objectives. Research questions appear to be a neglected area both in terms of the resources available to students and researchers, and their visibility in certain research outputs.” He also draws attention to the much neglected, and positive, drives of curiosity and enthusiasm in directing our choice of research questions (I’d add to that personal experience and life events).

There are aspects around social science and philosophy within White’s paper I don’t warm to, but in terms of raising wider concerns about the neglect of research questions within our teaching and practice he is spot on. He explores more of these issues in this lecture.

From this, read these previous posts about whether or not you are doing research plus the joy of curiosity (and how you’ll never know everything and that is okay).

Ask yourself, are you looking back on past teaching or practice and realizing you have not fully explored your questions? Perhaps you have a clearer idea about defining and refining research questions now. If you have taught research in the past or are currently doing so you may wish to revisit and revise how you currently focus on the ‘create your research question’ component of your teaching. If you have not done research before having space to reflect on the importance of a question and placing it in the centre of your planning may be very beneficial. Or it may leave you anxious you are not skilled enough to unpack the meanings of crafting a research question. Or maybe you now feel even more confused. If that’s the case, don’t panic. Let’s see if the next post can help you further.

[Image is an illustration by Birute Zilyte of farmers and musicians. From the 1966 book The Little Song that Ran Away. More information from 50 Watts]

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