Seven questions to ask about your research question

This post focuses on the context and circumstances in which you are creating a research question. It should take you around 1.5 – 2 hours to complete.

You may have a research question already decided upon, or perhaps you’ve been asked to pick one or are struggling to create a clear and coherent question. As with the last discussion on framing and creating research questions we aren’t jumping into finalising your specific question in this post either.

Instead, think about the general idea you have for your research or a draft question that you would like to use and answer the following…

1. What does the phrase ‘research question’ mean to you?
Far from being unbelievably obvious, what you think ‘research question’ means may well vary between you, your colleagues, supervisor, students, participants, stakeholders or others you’ll encounter on your research journey.

Take a moment to consider the list below. And think which of the following matches your work. A research question might come in the form of something you…
Test; Explore; Evaluate; Assess; Prove; Identify; Scope; Challenge; Contest; Defend; Qualify; Dispute; Refute; Replicate; Substantiate; Interrogate.

One or more of these terms may match your work, or perhaps you can think of other words not on the list. Having made your selection, what are the words you are drawn to telling you about the research question you have in mind? Is it going to be something creative or exploratory? Or something that will test or challenge? Is it open or closed?

This may help you sort out your question and indicate what method(s) you might find helpful to answer it. Alternatively if you have lots of words picked from the list, particularly if they contradict each other that might show you need to make your question more specific or focused in a particular area.

2. What is your research question part of?
Here are some examples of where research questions might feature. Do any of these apply to you, or is your situation different?

  • a class exercise or course activity where a research question is set by your tutor or supervisor
  • a question you have to think up for yourself
  • a community based problem you need to create a specific question to investigate
  • a question you wish to explore via a funded grant or large scale piece of research

Being aware of the context of your question can give you a better sense of how much autonomy you have within the research process – particularly around being flexible if the work does not go the way you expect. It may also influence how engaged you are with your research overall.

3. Is this research…
– Something you’ve never thought about before/been given to investigate/novel to you
– Something you know a lot about already (e.g. you’ve already done one study which indicated there was a need to now investigate xyz)
– Something you’ve an idea about but haven’t checked out (e.g. you’re a practitioner in xyz area and believe there’s a problem you’ve spotted that needs solving elsewhere)
Or something else?
Having got this far you may now be in a better position to think what your question is – and why it is you want to find an answer to it.

4. Are there any practical factors that will affect your ability to answer your question?
Time – how much time do you have to answer the question and do you think you can achieve this within the time allocated?
Cost – have you set yourself a question you don’t have fees/resources to answer?
Skills – what skills do you need to answer the question, design, methods, recruitment, analysis, writing up? Do you need any additional training in these skills before you begin any research?
Location – where is this work going to take place, do you have clearance/acceptance to go there?
Participants – are you going to be working with people face-to-face or online? Or working from preexisting materials, archives or datasets? Are there any particular needs, wants or barriers that you need to be aware of when working with your desired community/sample?
Ethics – what ethical issues does your potential question raise? How will you either adapt your question or your method to ensure your work is ethical and empowering?

5. Who else will understand your question?
Considering what you are thinking about asking, will this be meaningful and understandable to others? For example the community you want to work with, research funding bodies, supervisors or managers, ethics committees, colleagues or staff who will be working with you? Could the question you’ve picked be off putting to anyone? Why? Will you be working in more than one language or with more than one culture/country that might require interpreters or considering what your question may mean within diverse settings? Is there any history or baggage behind your question, your chosen method or subject area that may influence how people perceive you and your work? Or impact upon how you proceed with your research? Will your questions be open or closed? That will certainly affect what method you pick, but will the participants you want to work with appreciate that method or how you are asking questions of them? Be honest – your question may fascinate you, but will anyone else care enough to join in your study?

6. What do you want to achieve by asking your question?
Research questions, if they are considered at all, are assumed to be a tool to get data. But they may also be a reflection of our motivations, interests, hopes or fears.

Here are some reasons why you may be creating a research question. To:
– make a change/difference
– measure impact
– help others
– pass a module or course
– prove or test a theory
– get published
– further my career

Doubtless there will be many more. On a piece of paper can you write your research question in the middle, then around it draw all the possible outcomes that could come from it– personal, professional and practical. This includes things that would affect you and any other participants/stakeholders or wider society. Aside from helping you consider who would benefit from your work it may also begin to highlight who will get the best payoffs, and if there are any inequalities or dangers you can foresee if you ask your question in its current form.

7. What’s driving your need to ask questions?
Curiosity? Excitement? Activism? Frustration? All of these and more may be motivating factors and all bring with them their own risks and benefits. It’s great to be enthusiastic, creative and curious yet these don’t give you a free pass from making sure your work is methodical, rigorous and transparent. They won’t (necessarily) prevent work becoming stressful and boring. And they do come with a set of particular values that research must always be breathtakingly thrilling, and not just a job you do or a task set within school or college.

That said, in making our research all about specific questions, methods, outcomes, variables, reports etc we may often lose our initial drive, determination and passion. Are you able to capture within your question the ethos that is behind it and keep returning to that as you progress through your project?

If you are not sure, again ask yourself why you are interested? What has prompted you to ask the question? What do you hope to get from answering it? Has anyone else tried to answer it before? What are the things you think might get in the way of you being able to answer the question?

Having noted your answers to all the questions posed above the next post will look at how existing literature and published studies can help you shape your research question.

[Image shows blackboard with questions like who, what, why written on it.Found at]

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