what do research questions want?

Understanding what research questions want can be helpful.

Different kinds of questions produce different kinds of knowledge contributions and often imply particular kinds of methods.

Descriptive questions aim to provide some qualitative or quantitative information about something – they want to find out how much or to what extent something happens. They may generate themes or categories as part of the construction of a description.

• How do preschool children use information and communication technologies?
• How much time do children spend playing computer games?
• When do children choose to use the computer and for what purposes?
• What do children learn from playing computer games?

Analytic questions take a description further. They set out to look for patterns, trends, processes, or causal relationships between things, events, or people. They can be expressed as hypotheses whereas descriptive questions cannot.

• How has the pattern of children’s computer use changed in the last four years?
• What are the class backgrounds of children who play computer games every day?
• How does children’s computer use relate to their educational attainment?

Evaluative questions show how well or badly a goal/state/level/norm is being achieved. Such questions require a lot of careful definitional work to determnine what counts as well or badly.

• What do parents do to promote responsible computer use? (how would responsible use be defined?)
• How effective is the strategy of banning mobile phones in schools? ( what would be considered effective?)

Predictive questions want to foretell behaviour or events on the basis of trends or models. These generally require some kind of quantitative approach.

• Will children spend less time playing computer games if they are involved in sporting activities?
• Will children spend less time playing commercial games if they are taught to design their own?

Problem-solving questions are committed to change something for the better. These are often used in practitioner research, action research and design research.

• What can schools do to promote critical use of digital information?
• How can teachers use information and communication technologies to improve their own learning?
• How can libraries improve the ways in which their computer facilities are accessed?

Theory building questions desire new ways of understanding a thing, event(s), people or social phenomena.

• How might we understand the ways in which children learn literacy/ies through playing computer games?
• What can learning theory gain from cultural studies approaches to children’s use of computer games?
• What questions is it helpful to ask about children’s computer use?

Acknowledgements: This heuristic was prompted by and owes something to the questions found in Ch 5, Nygaard, L (2008) Writing for scholars. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. However, the writing of each type of question as an active agent is to see research texts as an actor in the research process. More of this later.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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