Skills booster: This is how you formulate a good research question

When you do research, it’s nice to have a clear research question as soon as possible. Apart from answering (scientific) questions, doing research is also about making decisions when conducting the actual research, which a clear question can help you with. What kind of data do you want to gather? And what are you going to analyze? A clear question helps when structuring your text, also when writing a paper or thesis.

At the start of a research project, you’ll think about and make decisions about what your research will be about. This can be established in a research plan or proposal, in which you’ll discuss the what, why and how of your research.

Another reason why the formulation of your question is so important, is because the research question has to be as clear as possible to give direction to your research. What exactly is it that you want to know? What type of information are you looking for? You can differentiate between 6 types of questions. For example, when someone decides to research ‘The informative role of the Nutrition Centre’, they can ask 6 types of questions about this topic. See below some possible questions that go with this topic:

How do you choose which question type to use?

Not all question types will be appropriate for your research. When making a choice you should consider the following:

Two more tips

  • Whether the question is open or closed doesn’t matter for any of the question types. With a closed question you’ll already have a possible outcome and want to test if that’s correct, for example if you already are considering one characteristic. But your research will still be descriptive in this case.
  • Consider what you think the outcome of your research will be. What answer are you hoping for? This will help you what question type to choose, as it will probably correspond to one. For example, if you’re hoping for an overview of advantages and disadvantages, you’ll need an evaluative question. Even if you don’t know exactly what the advantages and disadvantages will be, with the right question type this will be what you’re looking for.

What’s next?

Each question corresponds to a different answer, which means that the conducting of research will also look different per question type. To give structure to the execution of your research you can formulate sub-questions. These are questions that help you answer the main question. It highlights the steps to take to get to the answer.

The sub-questions are different per question type. With an evaluative question you’ll need different sub-questions than with an explanatory question. With an evaluation, there will always be a question that considers what the norm is of what you’re researching, for example. The example used above will need a question like ‘What does effective mean?’ An explanatory question, on the other hand, you’ll have a sub-question about possible causes (or consequences).

When you’ve formulated the sub-questions, check if you really need them all in order to answer the main research question. Are you asking unnecessary questions? Or is there a question missing?

More tips

Looking for more writing and studying techniques you can implement right away? Check out the overview of all tips and knowledge clips.

The Skills Boosters are brought to you by: Educational Development & Training, Skills Lab and the National Programme for Education (NPO).