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Research questions

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What is a research question?

A research question is the central and guiding aspect of a research study. It provides the basis from which decisions are made on how to approach the study, what relevant evidence there is available, and how you will analyze your findings. The purpose of designing a good research question is so that it guides not only your analysis but also directs you to relevant evidence.

The first step in developing a research question for a dissertation is to understand what it should be trying to achieve. This includes:

  • identifying what area of theory or practice has been researched enough already—and therefore does not need any more investigation into it;
  • identifying an issue that could be addressed through further research that would have practical value;
  • asking a new question based on the other research that has been done in this area.

The initial words of your research question should be “what” or “why”. Research questions beginning with these words are known as ‘discrepant’ questions, because they seek to reveal something that is missing or contradicts existing theory or practice. Symbolic interactionists would not view the world as random, but rather as having meaning placed upon it by those who are part of it. This means that you must place yourself within the context of your problem and attempt to see the situation from different perspectives so you can interpret what’s taking place.

The purpose for doing a study is to find out somethings not already know

A good research design provides an appropriate solution to the research question. It is a plan for gathering evidence and answering your research question, including identifying the type of evidence to collect, how it will be collected, and which methods will be used. There are different types of research designs that can be used depending on what you want to find out from your research. The two main types are descriptive design and explanatory design—these can be further divided into four subtypes: positivist, interpretivist, critical realist and postmodernist approaches.

When deciding on a theoretical framework or approach to use within a study, there are various factors you need to consider.

These include:

  • choosing an approach that best fits with your research question;
  • whether the approach fits in with your overall dissertation topic;
  • whether the approach is compatible with the context and participants of your study;
  • whether you have the resources to develop a study that adheres to this theory or approach.

It is important that you match the data collection methods used to fit with your chosen theoretical framework and research design.

There are various different types of data collection methods available, including:

  • interviews;
  • questionnaires;
  • focus groups;
  • observation;
  • experiments;
  • literature reviews/ content analysis
  • historical texts.

You must decide which method will provide you with the best evidence for answering your research question, taking into account such factors as what type of information you require and how much time is available to collect it.

Deciding on what data collection methods to use depends on both the topic under investigation and your overall aims.

Characteristics of a good research question

A good research question has the following characteristics:

  1. It is focused on the specific research issue,
  2. It has clear boundaries,
  3. It is grounded in some prior empirical observations or theoretical insight,
  4. It provides a reliable basis for collecting new data.

A good research question is focused on the specific research issue. The question should help structure and guide the researchers’ work. An unfocused question can lead to unproductive confusion, wasted effort, missed opportunities for innovation, and outright error. It is therefore important that one refines a vague question into one or more questions phrased in terms of observable reality-e.g., “What happens when X passes through Y?” rather than “What are the effects of X..???”

The research question should have clear boundaries. It should be possible to identify unambiguously what belongs within its scope and what does not. For example, if someone asks why people sometimes show irrational fear of random stimuli (such as electric shocks), it would include all cases of such fears. This would be too broad to allow for interesting, testable hypotheses.

A good research question has clear boundaries; it is grounded in some prior empirical observations or theoretical insight. The formulation should give the reader a basis for predicting what might happen next (and how things will turn out); that is, its content should lend itself to hypothesis testing. Without this, the researcher would have little guidance as to what data would best answer the question

The question provides a reliable basis for collecting new data. A good research question helps provide reasonable guidelines for designing and conducting an appropriate study. For example, one who asks whether people are capable of learning without being able to receive feedback information will typically require different study designs than someone who asks whether brain damage causes people to lose their ability to learn. The first question fits well with a classical experimental approach, while the second might be more appropriate for a laboratory study of brain-damaged animals and humans. A clear focal issue helps ensure that all data collection is relevant and useful.

Steps to developing a research question

To formulate a research question effectively for your research study, you should reflect upon your previous research experiences, knowledge in the field, and any problems or questions you already know about.

You may want to develop a general topic first before narrowing it down.

Step 1: Write your overall topic/subject you are interested in researching about.

“I am interested in researching how people learn whether or not they have allergies.”

Step 2: Write two or more specific keywords that describe this subject/topic. For example, “allergies” is too broad of a word so let’s try using “food allergies”. Also, note that sometimes one key word can be broken down into even more specific keywords (i.e., “food allergy” could become “leafy green allergy”).

“I am interested in researching how people learn whether or not they have allergies to leafy greens.”

Step 3: Write down 1-3 broad questions that could be based on your keywords. Note that a question should not only ask the “what, where, when & how” but also why or who (if applicable).

  • How do people learn whether or not they have allergies?
  • What are some common ways that people with food allergies learn about their allergy?
  • When does someone discover they might have an allergy to leafy green vegetables?

Step 4: Now begin narrowing down your topic by thinking of specific subtopics or parts within the subject/topic you previously outlined.

  • How do people learn whether or not they have allergies to leafy greens?
  • What are some common ways that people with food allergies learn about their allergy?
  • When does someone discover they might have an allergy to leafy green vegetables?

Step 5: Narrow down your subtopics by thinking of specific parts/questions within each question you come up with in Step 4. You can decide on doing this later when actually writing the research paper, but it is recommended that you at least narrow them down to 2-4 questions for now so you know what path to take when beginning the research process (e.g., if one topic yields too little information you can switch gears). For now, let’s see what our subtopics are for the first question:

  • How do people learn whether or not they have allergies to leafy greens?

– People can learn from doctors/nurses during treatment.

– Some parents may discover their children have a food allergy after accidentally giving them a food they might be allergic to.

– Others may figure out by doing skin tests.

Step 6: What specifically makes you interested in this topic? For example, maybe you had an experience with someone who figured out that they were allergic through a specific method or maybe there was something that surprised you when reading about allergies. Also ask yourself if your interests align with your goals as a researcher (i.e., is the topic something that has not already been studied to death by other researchers?).

– I am interested by how people can learn about allergies from doctors/nurses during treatment versus others who might figure it out on their own.

– I am interested in the differences between parents discovering food allergies and others using skin tests or other methods.

Step 7: Finally, ask yourself if your interests align with your goals as a researcher (i.e., is the topic something that has not already been studied to death by other researchers?) and ensure that you have an insightful question that hasn’t been asked before! You want to be able to provide new knowledge or information to those whom you are studying or communicating with.

-“I would like to research the differences between how parents discover their children’s food allergies and how other people learn about having a food allergy.”

-“I would like to research the process doctors/nurses use when discovering whether or not patients have leafy green food allergies versus other methods that are used by others to determine if their child might have an allergy to foods in this category.”

“Have you ever discovered you were allergic to certain foods?”

-“How did you come across this information?”

-“What was your reaction after finding out you had a food allergy for the first time?”

-“When did you become aware of your allergy? Was it something that came on gradually over time, did it happen abruptly after ingesting the food before, etc.?”

-“How has your allergy affected you in the past and how does it affect you now?”

-“If food allergies run in your family, do you know how old children should be before eating certain foods?”

-“What methods did doctors/nurses use during your diagnosis? Was there a specific test that was done or did they ask questions about what might have caused the allergy to develop (e.g., genetics, lifestyle choices, environment)?”

-“What were some of the reactions felt immediately after eating certain foods and what were some of the long-term effects on health when ingesting these foods over an extended period of time?”

How to write a research question

One of the most important steps in planning a research study is to write a clear and succinct research question. If you have ever struggled with writing your own research question, then this article will help you understand how to develop a good one.

Developing a well-written research question for your studies can be challenging. Many researchers struggle with several issues when they construct their questions, such as:

  • what type of question should I ask?
  • What components do I include?
  • How do I structure my research question so that it encompasses all the necessary elements?

Fortunately there are some simple guidelines on developing an effective research question. In this paper we describe these types of questions and provide examples so that new researchers may better understand how to write their own questions.

Descriptive questions: Descriptive research questions which focus on the characteristics of individuals, groups, and things in a population or setting

Descriptive research question examples:

  • What are the demographics of the families who attend the school-based health center?
  • What are the principal barriers to physical activity among men with heart disease?

Interpretative questions – These address cause-effect relationships among variables by asking for an association between two or more variables. For example: Are there associations between parental support and psychological well-being for young adults with type 1 diabetes mellitus? What risk factors do patients perceive as most dangerous for their own heart attack experiences? Does self-efficacy affect glycemic control adolescent women with type 1 diabetes mellitus?

Applications questions – these address how to do, use, or practice something such as: How can we effectively intervene with parents who abuse their children exposed to intimate partner violence?

Problem questions – These identify a common problem or concern and ask what needs to be done: Why has the incidence of heart disease increased among African Americans despite elevated awareness and medical intervention among this population? What is an effective means of promoting physical activity behaviors at school?

Policy questions – These examine current policy on a given topic by asking whether it is appropriate, adequate, or sufficient: Is there a need for expanded health insurance coverage for preventive services among women with type 1 diabetes mellitus in the U.S.?

Conceptual questions – These address the conceptual application of a theory, model, or framework by asking how it can be used to explain phenomena: How do gender role attitudes influence adolescents’ self-esteem?

Hypothesis testing questions – These seek to determine whether two variables are associated or related in some way.

For example:

  • Is there an association between student social support and academic achievement?
  • Does exercise training improve glycemic control among patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus?

Formulate your research question that identifies one of the types above then answer this question using an example from your setting or population of interest. This will make sure you have included all necessary elements in developing a strong research question for your study.

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