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A research question is 'a question that a research project sets out to answer'. Choosing a research question is an essential element of both quantitative and qualitative research. Investigation will require data collection and analysis, and the methodology for this will vary widely. Good research questions seek to improve knowledge on an important topic, and are usually narrow and specific.
To form a research question, one must determine what type of study will be conducted such as a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed study. Additional factors, such as project funding, may not only affect the research question itself but also when and how it is formed during the research process. Literature suggests several variations on criteria selection for constructing a research question, such as the FINER or PICOT methods.
The answer to a research question will help address a research problem or question. Specifying a research question, "the central issue to be resolved by a formal dissertation, thesis, or research project," is typically one of the first steps an investigator takes when undertaking research. Considerations, such as project funding or methodological approaches may influence the research process, including when and how the research question is developed. Clearly and accurately defining the research question can become an iterative process. How the question is constructed can depend on the type of research or discipline.
Constructing a research question
Specifying the research question is one of the first methodological steps the investigator has to take when undertaking research. Having an interest in or knowledge of a particular subject can be useful in the construction of a research question. Formation of the research question is largely determined by, and likewise influences, where and what kind of information will be sought. The research question must be accurately and clearly defined. Choosing a research question is the central element of both quantitative and qualitative research and in some cases it may precede construction of the conceptual framework of study; in all cases, it makes the theoretical assumptions in the framework more explicit and indicates what the researcher wants to know most and first. Therefore, the investigator must first identify the type of study (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed) before the research question is developed. Forming the research question may become an iterative process when parameters of the research process, such as field of study or methodology, do not fit the original question. Literature suggests several methods for selecting criteria in the development of a research question, two of which are the FINER and PICO methods.
Construction method examples
The FINER method can be a useful tool for outlining research criteria used in the construction of a research question. Due to the flexibility of the criteria, this method may be used for a variety of research scenarios. The FINER method prompts researchers to determine whether one has the means and interest to conduct the study. It also asks one to consider the ethical ramifications, as well as the relevancy of the research.
According to Farrugia et al., the FINER criteria "highlight useful points that may increase the chances of developing a successful research project". These criteria were first suggested in the book Designing Clinical Research by Hulley et al., detailed below.
F – Feasible
- Adequate number of subjects
- Adequate technical expertise
- Affordable in time and money
- Manageable in scope
I – Interesting
- Getting the answer intrigues investigator, peers and community
N – Novel
- Confirms, refutes or extends previous findings
E – Ethical
- Amenable to a study that institutional review board will approve
R – Relevant
- To scientific knowledge
- To clinical and health policy
- To future research
PICOT criteria tend to be used to frame questions used in evidence-based studies, such as medical studies. Such research may focus on assessment or evaluation of patients or problems, as well as what may be the causal factor(s) with control and experimental groups.
P – Patient (or Problem)
I – Intervention (or Indicator)
C – Comparison group
O – Outcomes
T – Time
Continuing the research process, the investigator then carries out the research necessary to answer the research question, whether this involves reading secondary sources over a few days for an undergraduate term paper or carrying out primary research over years for a major project. When the research is complete and the researcher knows the (probable) answer to the research question, writing up can begin (as distinct from writing notes, which is a process that goes on through a research project). In term papers, the answer to the question is normally given in summary in the introduction in the form of a thesis statement.
Types and purpose
The research question serves two purposes:
- It determines where and what kind of research the writer will be looking for.
- It identifies the specific objectives the study or paper will address.
Therefore, the writer must first identify the type of study (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed) before the research question is developed.
A qualitative study seeks to learn why or how, so the writer's research must be directed at determining the what, why and how of the research topic. Therefore, when crafting a research question for a qualitative study, the writer will need to ask a why or how question about the topic. For example: How did the company successfully market its new product? The sources needed for qualitative research typically include print and internet texts (written words), audio and visual media.
Here is Creswell's (2009) example of a script for a qualitative research central question:
- _________ (How or what) is the _________ ("story for" for narrative research; "meaning of" the phenomenon for phenomenology; "theory that explains the process of" for grounded theory; "culture-sharing pattern" for ethnography; "issue" in the "case" for case study) of _________ (central phenomenon) for _________ (participants) at _________ (research site).
A quantitative study seeks to learn where, or when, so the writer's research must be directed at determining the where, or when of the research topic. Therefore, when crafting a research question for a quantitative study, the writer will need to ask a where, or when question about the topic. For example: Where should the company market its new product? Unlike a qualitative study, a quantitative study is mathematical analysis of the research topic, so the writer's research will consist of numbers and statistics.
Here is Creswell's (2009) example of a script for a quantitative research question:
- Does _________ (name the theory) explain the relationship between _________ (independent variable) and _________ (dependent variable), controlling for the effects of _________ (control variable)?
Alternatively, a script for a quantitative null hypothesis might be as follows:
- There is no significant difference between _________ (the control and experimental groups on the independent variable) on _________ (dependent variable).
Quantitative studies also fall into two categories:
- Correlational studies: A correlational study is non-experimental, requiring the writer to research relationships without manipulating or randomly selecting the subjects of the research. The research question for a correlational study may look like this: What is the relationship between long distance commuters and eating disorders?
- Experimental studies: An experimental study is experimental in that it requires the writer to manipulate and randomly select the subjects of the research. The research question for an experimental study may look like this: Does the consumption of fast food lead to eating disorders?
A mixed study integrates both qualitative and quantitative studies, so the writer's research must be directed at determining the why or how and the what, where, or when of the research topic. Therefore, the writer will need to craft a research question for each study required for the assignment. A typical study may be expected to have between 1 and 6 research questions.
Once the writer has determined the type of study to be used and the specific objectives the paper will address, the writer must also consider whether the research question passes the "so what" test. The "so what" test means that the writer must construct evidence to convince the audience why the research is expected to add new or useful knowledge to the literature.
Problematique is a term that functions analogously to the research problem or question used typically when addressing global systemic problems. The term achieved prominence in 1970 when Hasan Özbekhan, Erich Jantsch and Alexander Christakis conceptualized the original prospectus of the Club of Rome titled "The Predicament of Mankind". In this prospectus the authors designated 49 Continuous Critical Problems facing humankind, saying "We find it virtually impossible to view them as problems that exist in isolation – or as problems capable of being solved in their own terms... It is this generalized meta system of problems, which we call the 'problematique' that inheres in our situation."
Situations similar to the global problematique in their complexity are also called problematiques. These situations receive different designations from other authors. In organizational theory and related fields, researchers C. West Churchman, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, and Chris Argyris called these situations wicked problems; Russell Ackoff called them "messes".
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