Asking research questions
Research questions should guide your:
- formulation of a research plan or proposal (if you have to submit one)
- aims and objectives
- literature search
- decisions about the kind of research design to employ
decisions about what data to collect and from whom
- analysis of your data
- writing up of your project
- direction (i.e. stop you from going off in unnecessary directions and tangents)
To see video clips of students talking about their research questions, click here
Research questions should (page 85):
- be clear. They must be understandable to you and to others, and especially your assessors.
- be researchable. They should be capable of development into a research design, so that data may be collected in relation to them. This means that more abstract terms are unlikely to be suitable.
- connect with established theory and research. This means that there should be a literature on which you can draw to help illuminate how your research questions should be approached. Even if you find a topic that has been scarcely addressed by social scientists, it is unlikely that there will be no relevant literature (for example, on related or parallel topics). Making connections with theory and research will also allow you to show how your research has made a contribution to knowledge and understanding.
- be linked to each other. Unrelated research questions are unlikely to be acceptable, since you should be developing an argument in your dissertation. You could not very readily construct a single argument in relation to unrelated research questions.
- have potential for making a contribution to knowledge. They should at the very least hold out the prospect of being able to make a contribution-however small-to the topic.
- be neither too broad nor too narrow. The research questions should be neither too large (so that you would need a massive grant to study them) nor too small (so that you cannot make a reasonably significant contribution to your area of study).
Remember that (see page 83 and Research in focus 4.2):
- we cannot answer all the research questions that occur to us
- we therefore have to select from the possible research questions at which we arrive
- we should be guided by the principle that the research questions we choose should be related to one another
If you are stuck about how to formulate research questions (or indeed other phases of your research), it is always a good idea to look at journal articles, research monographs or past dissertations to see how other researchers have formulated them. Also, look at:
- Sources of Research Questions:
- Generating Research Questions:
Exercise: Springfield University 1Title: Asking Research Questions
Springfield University is one of over 150 universities in the UK. Well established, it has some 12,000 students on average per annum, both full and part time, studying a wide range of courses such as medicine, biology, business studies, finance, history, law, creative writing, etc. However, it was built in the 1940s and its infrastructure is beginning to become very tired; often many facilities are broken or in need of repair and not up to what a student would expect, especially given a change in government policy and rise in tuition fees across the sector in 2008. The learning technology and catering facilities are also dated, both key aspects in students’ learning environment. Many undergraduate students with UCAS offers who have achieved their grades are simply choosing to go elsewhere. Springfield is located in a region that has many other universities within travelling distance and it is therefore not surprising that student intakes are gradually declining.
The Business School is at stake here, and it is thought moving the whole of this department off campus will not only provide room for other departments on campus but also enhance the Business Schools’ branding with its own separate marketing entity. Many other business schools in the UK have moved off campus to their own satellite campus over the past decade. Moreover, the academics, some with many years’ service, are less than enthusiastic about the move, as they feel it would take them and their students away from the heart of campus life. The new campus where the Business School would be housed would embrace the latest in technology, teaching facilities, learning resources and, above all, be attractively located in the city centre. However, there are disadvantages, not least the lack of staff car parking facilities and a paucity of teaching staff office space. The biggest threat to the vision, at least according to the University Executive, is the ‘mindset’ of the staff, which, in their view, would need ratcheting up a fair few notches to embrace the philosophy of the new building as an ‘up-market, quality’ establishment. In addition to being away from central campus, one of the many things staff will need to embrace is shared office space. This, and other new innovations, will be a steep learning curve for many staff.
The university has decided to initiate research to examine how it should prepare itself for the change, position itself as a newly branded Business School in the market place, and the appropriate accompanying staff behaviour.
Your answer should be fully justified with reference to the text. It is important to stress that there is not one right answer but some are justifiably better solutions than others.