Formulating a Great Research Question
Presumably you are working on a research topic that interests you. You have done a great deal of literature searching and reading (or alternatively, you have observed a practical problem) and you identified a gap in knowledge (also known as a “knowledge gap”). It is now time to form a good research question that will guide your research and make your data collection focused and relevant to the problem at hand.
The ‘so what’ test
Your research needs to have a clear and recognizable purpose. Generally there is little point in working on something nobody but you finds interesting. Your research question should be able to answer a relevant problem in the field and fill a gap in available knowledge. It is also more likely you will receive funding if you attempt to answer a pending academic or practical question, and the generated knowledge from your research is expected to bring some benefit.
When you present your research proposal, you need to be able to answer the ‘so what’ question. Why is answering this question important? You need to be able to clearly outline the purpose of your study and not be baffled if others question the relevance of your potential contribution. You know you have formed a great question when the ‘so what’ test is not difficult to pass and you feel your study will make an academic or practical contribution.
That said, you should also answer a research question you too find interesting and exciting. After all, you will be working on this project for at least a year, so you better make it stimulating and fun.
Wording the question
It’s unlikely that your first version of the research question will also be your final. Good research questions need time to develop and mature. You might want to start with a research idea and then mold it into an answerable and focused question. Also, try to be original. Avoid simply copying ideas you came across in other study modules or research papers.
Is your question narrow enough?
It is very important not to make the question too broad or too vague. For example, “What makes people happy?” is most likely a question too large and non-specific enough to answer in a single study. Your question needs to be broken down and specified, so the phenomenon under study can be made measureable and/or observable. A research interest in the human experience of happiness could produce a research question such as: “What is the relationship between reported quality of life and people’s early childhood experiences within their family?”
However, you also do not want to make your question too narrow. If you can answer it with yes or no, it is probably too simple. Also, asking about demographic characteristics and basic statistics is usually too narrow as well. For example, “What is the percentage of people who feel happy with their current life situation?” will require only some basic descriptive statistics to answer and should, at best, be a component of a larger argument.
Make it manageable
Ensure that you can answer the question within your research timeframe and with the resources available to you. Be realistic about your skills and abilities. It might be tempting to put together a complex question that would require a large sample and elaborate methods to answer. However, that approach might not be feasible if your time and resources are limited.
If you have already started your research and then realized the research question needs to be modified, discuss it with your mentor and/or dissertation chairperson and make the required adjustments. It is acceptable (and sometimes even necessary) to change your research question or the scope of your study according to the information you have gathered throughout the process.
The difference between quantitative and qualitative research questions
Your research question — and its wording — will determine if your study should be qualitative, quantitative or a mixed study.
“What are the experiences of women aged 40 to 60 who have developed early onset dementia?” might call for a qualitative approach that will explore the phenomenon by employing methods such as in-depth interviews.
On the other hand, “Do negative attitudes toward alternative therapies lead to prescribing more pharmaceutical drugs?” is a predictive question that may require a quantitative approach to answer.