At the beginning of every thesis or dissertation, research students usually face challenges of crafting research questions, which often are returned from feedback as either broad or un-researchable. As such, having an insight into where to look for and how to craft research questions would help students deconstruct these challenges.
Research questions are the key to any empirical research project (Sunderland, 2010). It is further argued that without research questions, a researcher will not be guided in terms of the required data, methods of data collection and data analysis. This argument places research questions at the premise of every research, and therefore need to be carefully thought out.
One of the primary sources of research questions is literature. Literature is a collection of previous studies related to the current research. It can be considered as the scope within which a research finds a gap to fill or a spring towards the next level of inquiry. It must be noted that the more literature a researcher is able to read, however, it must be narrowed, the better the possibility of crafting suitable questions. Exploring adequate previous studies can help not only in problematizing the research but also in providing a mechanism for avoiding the pitfall of replication and a context for designing the new investigation. In essence, the best answer to crafting research questions is read and read and read, but narrow your reading!
Research questions may also come from mere observation, as they often do in natural sciences. By simply observing an apple falling to the ground from its tree, Isaac Newton came up with the question of ‘why not goes up?’ This question laid the foundation of the law of universal gravitation, a significant breakthrough that, two centuries later, would be challenged by Albert Einstein’s Relativity Theory. What an intensive reading of literature does, especially to beginning researchers, is to provide a tour guide into contextualising and narrowing down the questions. Suffice it to say, broad research questions are products of mere intuition and lack of in-depth reading.
Formulating research questions
Linguistically, and indeed within the pedagogy of research, there are some recommendations guiding the structuring of research questions.
Research questions are not necessarily meant to provide a single correct answer. A good question should critique and allow a room for further development and argument, yet not ambiguous.
How many social media sites do we have?
Using a simple counting or Internet search, one can answer the above question, and it does not provide a room for argument. Therefore, it will be better put:
What are some of the factors that influence the proliferation of social media sites?
Even though the above question still appears to be a bit broad in terms of context, it provides an opportunity for the research to measure and propose significant factors at the same time allow the reader to argue on. So, measurability is also an important quality of a good research question.
It is also pertinent to note that research questions are linked to research hypotheses; they both tend to answer the research goal, the former found in both qualitative and quantitative studies, while the latter exclusively linked to empiricism. Hypotheses are usually predictive – giving a statement of what results the researcher expects – and have three components: the population (the individuals investigated), variables (qualities, characteristics, etc. that change), and relationship (the link between one variable and another).
See the example below:
People who wake up early are more likely to accomplish more work in a day.
The hypothesis is predictive about what would happen; it mentions the population, which is the people; waking up early is the variable, and the relationship defines the link between waking up early and accomplishing more work in a day.
An equivalent research question of the hypothesis could read:
To what extent people who wake up early are likely to achieve more work in a day?
Simply put, hypotheses are statements while research questions are stated in form of questions.
When crafting research questions, there is also need to consider time constraints and availability of data, something often described as feasibility. You wouldn’t like to pose a question for which data will not be easily accessible, and it will not be completed within available time.
In the end, by whichever way a researcher happens to arrive at a gap (s) – through intensive reading of literature, close observation or both – questions can be formulated following the discussed criteria.
Sunderland, J. (2010). Research questions in linguistics. In Lia Litoseliti (Ed.), Research Methods in Linguistics (pp.9-28). London: Continuum