I’ve been asked a few times to post about research questions. My response up to now has been that there is already a lot out there on the topic and I’m not sure what I could add. But of course that’s a bit of a cop-out. So I’ve been thinking about what people get stuck on when developing their questions. And this week, as a bit of a break from blogging the conferences I’m at, I thought I’d have a go at research questions. As it’s also the time of year when people are starting doctorates, or taking on new doctoral researchers and/or writing bids, maybe my timing is right!
I reckon it’s pretty helpful to understand and use the fact that there are are different kinds of research questions. They’re not all the same. Questions can do different things. Let me explain… You can investigate a topic using a variety of questions. Each kind of question in turn allows a range of possible projects which use different approaches.
Here’s a starting list of ten different types of research questions* that you might use to begin to think about your research area. There’s a very big health warning here too – this is by no means a complete list. It’s a tiny beginning intended to give you some starters and to support the idea that there is a diversity of research purposes and approaches for every area of research interest. You might want to take this list and talk about and expand on it with your mates or your supervisor.
What might x mean?
• Interpretation of a text: What might Dicken’s metaphors of illness mean?
• Ethnography: What happens in a dementia ward?
What is the best explanation for x? – usually stated as a proposition to be tested.
• Randomised control trial: Teaching phonics helps children read.
What is the relationship between x and y?
What might be the cause of x? – this usually implies correlation of factors
• Mixed methods study: What influence do business leaders have on policy-making processes and how is this exercised?
• Network analysis: How do philanthropists influence public policy?
What does the evidence about x suggest?
• Meta analysis: What does existing research say about how to encourage children’s healthy eating?
• Evidence based review: Is there any evidence to suggest that public health advertisements about exercise change children’s behaviour?
How is x different in y and z?
Why is x different from y and z?
• Comparative case study: Why do some hospitals have more satisfied staff?
• Discourse analysis: How do different professions understand ‘client satisfaction’?
• Survey: How do hospital staff regard the notion of ‘equal pay’?
What should be done about x?
• Action research: What might be ethical guidelines for online research?
• Market research: What might be done to encourage online shopping?
• Design research: What might be a better way to design online learning?
How good is x?
• Evaluation: How satisfied are students with the HE student loan system?
What happens when…
• Intervention study: What happens when we flip lectures?
What makes x good?
Mixed methods study: What do successful business leaders do?
How much of y does x get?
Why does x get less of y?
What happens to x when y happens? This is often accompanied by a policy/practice question – and therefore, what should be done to redress the situation for x.
• Secondary data analysis: Which groups of young people do not go to university?
• Comparative case studies: Why do some universities attract more diverse student populations than others?
• Narrative analysis: What are the experiences of ‘nontraditional students’ attending an elite university?
Using the above, or your own expanded list of question types, can help you think about your options. Start off your project thinking not only about the topic you are interested in, but also what aspects of the topic interest you. You might also think about why you are interested in the topic. You can even think about what you hope to happen as a result of your research. It can be very useful to take some time to go through possible questions to see how they frame your topic in different ways. And it’s useful too, once you’ve arrived at the question you want to ask, to think of the various ways in which it might be researched. This ‘possibility generation’ of questions and approaches is not a bad way to clarify and focus your research project. So it goes, area – interests – questions -approaches...
Have a go. It’s not the only way to sort out a research question of course, but it’s a strategy which could help make your options clearer.
* These ten question types were prompted by Bruce Ballenger’s list of six types of inquiry, p. 42 The curious researcher: A guide to writing research papers. However I’ve elaborated these, a lot, and Ballenger shouldn’t be blamed for this set!