getting research questions wrong – then right

It’s the time of year when beginning doctoral researchers start to think about formulating their research proposals. In addition to reading a lot – to locate their study and find useful ideas and approaches – they also have to come up with a research question or research questions.

I’ve just come across a little resource that might help – Paul Trowler’s set of ibooks on researching in higher education. These are self published books and are pretty inexpensive to buy (and share if you know how).

In the text on thesis structure he has a very helpful set of criteria for formulating research questions. I’ve adapted his wording somewhat to suit this blog, but this is basically his formulation. Trowler says that research questions must:

!. be answerable – even if the final answer is not definitive, there must be AN answer
2. be specific – they must establish clear boundaries. They must delineate what is included and excluded from the study
3. they must be analytic – even if there is one or more descriptive questions, there must be at least one that is analytic
4. be capable of being operationalized – they must use concepts that are able to be worked with, and on, through measurement and/or observation and/or description
5. be realistic – they can’t be bigger projects than it’s possible to do within the time and resource constraints
6 be significant – they must be able to answer the “so what” question from an audience broader than those seriously interested in the topic.

Trowler uses these criteria to generate some practical examples which leads to an elaboration of what he calls ‘the deadly sins’ that beset research questions. His list of sins are very useful… I’ve added some examples to illustrate his categories.

Towler’s sinful questions are those that are:

– too descriptive – e.g. What books do adolescents read? (This might be the first question of a set, but it needs something analytic as well in order to make sense of the description.)

– too narrow – how can we make Nottingham library subscribers read more non-fiction books? (Nobody cares about the answer to this other than the Nottingham library, so the question needs to be broader, and the Nottingham library needs to be the site for an investigation of a bigger question.

– too ambitious – what do students want from their universities? (this is only a PhD not a national study of everything in HE)

– too vague – how does the obesity crisis affect teenagers? (How long is a piece of string? Where would you start?)

– normative – what are the advantages of teaching phonics to young children? (what about the disadvantages and what about other alternatives?)

– too prescriptive – why do parents’ attitudes to school dinners need to be changed? (predicts the outcome before the research is done).

Helpful. My hunch is that it might be even more helpful to deliberately play with these questions too – so you could make up sinful questions, in the area that you want to study, in order to see what is wrong with them. Try to be normative, descriptive and not analytic, prescriptive and vague. I reckon that deliberately doing the wrong thing might help actually get to more realistic and do-able questions.

Doctoral research into higher education: Thesis structure, content and completion. Prof. Paul Trowler (2012)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Paul Trowler, PhD, research question and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to getting research questions wrong – then right

  1. Again a very important discussion raised by you at the right time. I want to know as to how useful these spider diagrams are for formulating research questions?
    I am trying to kick start thinking/writing processes in my mind, but to no avail. I get stuck at the wrong junctures which ruins my entire ability to grasp and transfer concepts.
    Just a mental blockade I guess, which I am trying to surmount using the Three legged/branched Spider Diagrams.
    Also would appreciate if you can do a small writeup on structured paragraph writing using the TEE – (topic sentence, examples and evidences) concept. I think this is the most important topic which hasn’t been touched by you in your blogs or may be I haven’t read everything in here?
    Thanks anyways for this write up.



  2. Thank you so much for this- I’m at the start of this process now and these points will really help to sort out my confusion (I hope!).


  3. Reblogged this on confessions of a worried teacher and commented:
    On research design as discovery


  4. Klara says:

    This post is very timely! I’m getting 3 new students to supervise starting next week – I’ll make sure they know of these criteria to test their research questions before starting…


  5. Y Prior says:

    Thanks for this info on questions, also wanted to add this short checklist to use for drafting questions:

    __ The questions address the research problem

    __ The questions can be answered in an empirical study requiring data collection or use of archival data.

    __ The questions do not have yes/no answers.

    __ The questions do not contain concepts, constructs, or variables not identified as part of the problem.


  6. Pingback: Supervising undergrads in the lab | Dr.K.

  7. Pingback: Getting research questions wrong - then right |...

  8. lenaba bahou says:

    Hi – very helpful thanks…any thoughts about how to construct the overarching question? Thanks, lena


  9. Anon says:

    Hi Pat, Do you have any recent thoughts or suggestions on this? I’ve been told to avoid “understand” – so I’ve got to re-write my RQ


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