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Thinking about the research question(s)

The driver for all research is the question being asked. Devising the right one can often be a challenge.


Research questions should be clearly defined to produce useful results. Without a well-defined specific research question, findings from the research are unlikely to tell us very much. Developing a carefully focused research question defines how and what data is collected and analysed and provides a context for the results.

It is important to remember that projects often contain more than one question: an overall question representing the overarching aim of the research and one or more specific research questions which are addressed by the different components of the research project.

There are many different types of questions that could be asked in any future research about knowledge brokerage activities. Which questions are the most important? In existing studies, ‘effectiveness’ (what works?) questions are often asked, but the methods used are often weak. Are there other equally important research questions that should be addressed?

Table 1 details the different types of questions that users might want answered, along with some example research questions.  

Table 1: Types of research question

Type of research question
Example
What do people want? (Needs) What type of research evidence do policymakers in Lithuania say they need to help with decision-making (Levels of need)
What’s the balance of benefit and harm of a given intervention? (Impact/effectiveness) How effective are research briefings at influencing UK policymakers’ decisions?  (Impact)
Why/how does it work? (Process/explanation) How do knowledge brokers in Germany produce their effects on teachers’ uptake of research findings? (Process or explanation)
What is happening? (Implementation) To what extent have activities linking research and policy been implemented in Poland? (Implementation levels)
What relationships are seen between phenomena? (Correlation) What is known about the factors which promote or hinder the uptake of research evidence by policymakers in Greece?
What are people’s experiences/ perceptions/ views? What are French lecturers’ experiences of using research to shape teaching practice?

Another way of thinking about (framing) research questions is to consider the purpose of the research in relation to an argument or theory.  Is it to generate, test or explore this argument or theory?  Table 2 details some of the characteristics of these three ‘types’ of research, along with some example research questions. 

Table 2: Framing research questions ‘by purpose’

Purpose Characteristics Example
To generate theory
  • Aims to advance understanding Concepts and theories emerge from the data
  • Theory is the product
What are French lecturers’ experiences of using research to shape teaching practice?
To test theory
  • Aims to inform choice of interventions Concepts and theories pre-specified
  • Theory is the starting point
How effective are research briefings at influencing UK policymakers’ decisions? 
To explore theory
  • Aims to inform development and implementation of interventions
  • Some concepts/theories pre-specified, some emerge
  • Theory guides research
What is known about the factors which promote or hinder the uptake of research evidence by policymakers in Greece?

Research questions help to focus your attention on a specific problem. When thinking about the purpose of the research, it is important to consider which stakeholders will be using the research findings, and how will they be using them.

Research question should be capable of being developed into a plausible research design. Choosing the most appropriate design and methods can enhance prospects for obtaining meaningful results. You will also need to consider the practicality of the overall research design: whether, for example, you have access to the proposed research setting and data.

Research questions should also take into account any limitations on the amount of time, money and access that you have to the proposed research setting.

Selected resources

Further resources can be found in the Resources section.