2: What do out want to find out? Defining your research question*

This section covers a major aspect of thinking about your research project – your research question. It is a long section and has a lot of detail. You will likely use this section several times; at first to get a general overview of the research approach, and again throughout your project as you define your question, think about your methods, and reflect on your research approach. In the first reading your aim is to get a general sense of what a research question is and why we use them in education research.

At the heart of the research process is the focus on what it is the researcher wants to find out. The process of identifying what this is can be a very difficult task. Some new researchers may have lots of ideas related to their own experience that they would be interested in exploring further. Others new to research may not know where to begin thinking about what they could work on. In both scenarios, new researchers are unlikely to be familiar with the literature, or even that there is a body of literature relating to topics relevant to areas of research of interest to them.

The “good” news is that this initial experience is very common. The task at the beginning stage of your first project is to determine what general area you would like to research, and narrow this down iteratively until you decide on a particular question you would like to answer. We will go through this process below, but an important thing to keep in mind at this stage is that work on your first project is both about the research you will do and also what you learn about doing research. Choosing a topic of interest is important for your own motivation. But regardless of the topic, doing a project in this field will involve lots of learning about the research processes and this research field. These associated skills and knowledge will likely be of most benefit to you after you complete your dissertation and go on into a future career.

Deciding on your research topic

The first task in any research process is to determine what topic you will focus on. It is important to take time with this, because once the topic is decided, your work will move on to considering associated literature, particular questions of interest, and ultimately your research question and specific focus of your research. Taking time at this early phase is important as choosing a general topic of interest is like setting off on a motorway in a particular direction. You will be able to turn off and change the direction slightly, but the general direction of travel is set. The important thing at this first stage is to keep things general. Some brainstorming strategies are below. Of course this brainstorming phase may not be necessary if you are given direction by your supervisor, who may wish that you work on an assigned topic in their research specialism.

Choosing what you want to work on, when you are not quite sure of the menu of options is very difficult. Start by writing down what kinds of things interest you that could form general topics of study. You could structure these using the following prompts.

  • What from your own learning experiences was rewarding or challenging?
  • What issues from the media are topical in relation to education? Perhaps there have been changes to assessment approaches in Schools, or there is a focus on graduate employability? Is there something current that interests you that you would like to focus on?
  • Are there societal issues that are important to you? Perhaps you would like to explore the experience or performance of particular groups within education, or look at historical data and research trends. You might wish to explore education policy and subsequent impact in chemistry education.

An example of how to structure brainstorming relating to your own learning experiences is in the figure below. The task is to set out your own thinking on a particular issue, and then dwell and discuss it a little bit more to find a specific idea that is at the heart of it. Importantly, you should write out the conclusion of your deliberations; what was the outcome – even if it was that you decided not to pursue this topic.

It is likely that several broad topics emerge that will be of interest to you. But you only have a short amount of time to complete one project, so you will need to decide! So before you choose, take a shortlist of about three broad topics that have interested you and find out a little more about them. The aim here is to dip your toe in the water of these topics and get a feel for what kinds of things people do, and see which one piques your interest most.

To find out a little more, you should engage in preliminary reading. This is not a literature review – the task here is to find one or two recent articles associated with each topic and “scope” them to get a quick overview of the topic. We will discuss how to search the literature in a more formal way in a later section, but for the moment using Google Scholar with some terms from your brainstorming should help you find a few articles relating to your topic. With each article, use the following prompts to guide you.

An example of notes I obtained when “scoping” an article of interest to me relating to a general research area of how students explain observations in the laboratory is shown as an example alongside the general prompts below. This paper is complex, and the purpose here is to show you that scoping an article just involves a very high-level scan of the work to see the main points.

  1. The introduction to the article usually sets the context of the research, with some general issues relating to the research in this topic, while the final section of the paper (“limitations” or “conclusions” sections) give some specific detail on what needs further study. Read over these sections: are the issues being discussed of interest to you? This recent paper sets out the idea of different representations (symbolic, macroscopic, sub-microscopic) and explains how this relates to laboratory work. The research questions focus on understanding more about how students use representations to explain. 
  2. The experimental or methods section of the article usually describes the sample used in the study. If you were to research in this area, can you see how questions you are interested in would translate to your setting? While we will discuss scope of research more carefully below, the task here is to put yourself in the moment of doing a research project to think: what would I do? And then ask; does that moment pique your interest? The paper uses interviews that give students laboratory related tasks and asks them to explain and draw their understanding of what is going on. 
  3. The results and discussion section of the article describes data the researchers report and what they think it means in the wider context of the research area. Again, while the data that you get in your project will depend on what you set out to do, use this reading to see what kind of data is impressing you, and whether you find the discussion of interest. The paper describes the kinds of explanations students use and don’t use.
  4. Value to my interest: They are interested in promoting student explanations using chemical properties and describing processes. It highlights how resources that prompt these more explicitly could be valuable. This would be an interesting area to pursue!

We have reduced this complex and in-depth paper to four or five lines summary, based on our understanding of this research at this stage. This kind of “sampling” of the vast literature is a little ad-hoc, but it can be useful to help bring focus on the kinds of research that are feasible and help refine some conversations that you can have with your research supervisor. While embarking on a new project will always have a big “unknown” associated with it, your task is to become as familiar as possible with your chosen topic as you can in advance, so that you are making as informed a decision as possible about your research topic. Once you have – you are ready to continue your research!

From research topic to research question

In research in the chemistry laboratory, we tend to have implicit research questions. For example, we might test different amounts of catalyst loadings in a reaction to answer the question: “what is the optimum loading of catalyst for the reaction being investigated?” This question will be based on some appropriate theory – that catalysis does indeed assist reactions because of the changes in activation energy – and we will answer the question based on experimental data obtained to come to some conclusion – hopefully an optimum catalyst loading for the reaction, under certain stated conditions. If we wanted to know why a particular amount of catalyst was effective, then the experiments we would complete would be different; we would perhaps use spectroscopic methods to explore the mechanism of the reaction, building on a basis of understanding of heterogeneous interfacial chemistry.

While we don’t often explicitly state the research question in chemistry research, scientists do have an implicit sense that different questions lean on different areas of theory and require different methods to answer them. We can use some of this basis in translating the context to chemistry education research; namely that the research question and the underpinning theory are clearly interdependent, and the research question we ask will mandate the approaches that we take to answer it.

In (chemistry) education research, we are very explicit with research questions, and setting out the research question at the start of a study is a major component of the research process. As we will see repeatedly, all the components of a research project are interdependent, so that the research question will be informed by theory and determine the methods that will determine the kinds of data you can get, which in turn determine the question you can answer. The research question determines what particular aspect within a general research topic that you are going to consider. Blaikie (2000, p. 58) wrote:[1]

“In my view, formulating research questions is the most critical and, perhaps, the most difficult part of a research design… Establishing research questions makes it possible to select research strategies and methods with confidence. In other words, a research project is built on the foundation of research questions.

So there is a lot of pressure on research questions! The good news is that while you do need to start writing down your research question near the beginning of the project, it will change during the early stages of scoping out projects when considering feasibility and as you learn more from reading the literature. It could change as a result of ethical considerations. And it will probably change and be fine-tuned as you refine your instruments and embark on your study.

So the first time you write out a research question will not be the last. The act of writing it out, however bluntly, at the start helps set the direction of the project, indicate what methods are likely to be used in the project (those that can help answer the question), and keeps the project focussed when other oh-so-tempting questions arise and threaten to steer you off-course. So put the kettle on, get out a pen and a lot of paper, and start drafting your first research question!

Defining your research question

Defining what your research is going to focus on is a difficult process, and, as discussed, it is likely that you will come back to this stage several times in your research journey. This is a crucial stage in the research design and requires some care. Your initial scoping will likely have identified some vague or general questions, which are useful in a general research area. These are sometimes referred to as “foreshadowed questions”, meaning that they are an indicator of the kinds of questions you are going to focus on specifically. These general questions are important, as they are the first step in identifying what it is you are going to work on. As research questions are developed, the process involves iterations of focussing these general questions into highly specific, actionable questions. This is achieved through cycles of iterations, prioritising foreshadowed questions, mapping out how they might be addressed in terms of data collection, considering feasibility and ethics, and considering what is already known about this research topic (as informed by the literature).

To assist your thinking and guide you through this process, an example is used to show how this might happen in practice. In this example, a student has decided that they want to research something related to a general topic of work-experience in university education. The student had previously completed some work experience in an industrial chemistry laboratory, and knows of peers who have completed it formally as part of their degree programme. The student’s experience and anecdotal reports from peers are that this was a very valuable part of their undergraduate studies, and that they felt much more motivated when returning to study in formal teaching at university, as well as having a much clearer idea on their career aspirations after university.

Stage 1: What type of question do you want to answer?

The first iteration in the process of focussing is perhaps the most daunting. Here, the intention is to move your focus from the general research topic you are interested in to specific question(s) you are going to answer. This is a challenge as it moves the conversation from generally unfocussed topics to one or two specific issues that are brought sharply into focus.

Some foreshadowed questions that might emerge in early stages of this research design might include:

  • What kinds of industrial experience options are available to chemistry students?
  • What experiences are reported by students on industrial experience?
  • Why do some students choose to take up industrial placements?
  • How do students’ perception of their career-related skills change as a result of industrial experience?
  • How do students on industrial experience compare to students without such experience?

All of these questions – and you can probably think of many more – are specific to the general topic of industrial experience. But as they stand, they are too broad and need some focussing. To help, we will first think about the general kind of research we want to do.

Types of research

We can choose to find out what is going on in our study, or what is termed descriptive research. Descriptive research aims to find out answers to questions that start with “what”, “who”, “when”, and “where”. These questions are focussed on the subject of the research, exploring their experiences, narratives, and outcomes. By describing participants’ experiences, descriptive research aims to offer deep insight into what is underpinning some of the observations, such as increased motivation or increased awareness of career aspirations.

A second broad area of research is explanatory research, which tends to answer questions that start with “how” or “why”. Explanatory research has less of a focus on the subject of the research, and more on the processes the subjects are engaged with, seeking to establish what structures led to observed outcomes so that reasons for them can be elucidated.

A third broad area of research is comparative research, which tends to compare observations or outcomes in two or more different scenarios, using the comparison to identify useful insights into the differences observed. Many new to education research seek to focus on comparative questions, looking to answer a generic question of is “X” better than “Y”?  This is naturally attractive, especially to those with a scientific background, but it is worthwhile being cautious in approaching comparative studies (see Taber, 2017, linked). Even in well-designed research scenarios where research does find that “X” is indeed better than “Y” (and designing those research scenarios is fraught with difficulty in education studies), the question immediately turns to: “but why”? Having richer research about descriptions or explanations associated with one or both of the scenarios is necessary to begin to answer that question.

Let us think again about our foreshadowed questions in the context of general types of question. The aim here is to simply bundle together foreshadowed questions by question type, and by using the question type, begin to focus a little more on the particular aspects of interest to us. This helps us to elaborate on what these general questions would involve in terms of research (beginning to consider feasibility), as well as the kinds of outcomes that might be determined (beginning to consider value of research).

The descriptive questions above could be further explored as follows:

  • What kinds of industrial experience options are available to chemistry students? In answering this question, our research might begin to focus on describing the types of industrial experience that are available, their location, their length, placement in the curriculum, and perhaps draw data from a range of universities. In this first iteration, it is clear that this question will provide useful baseline data, but it is unlikely to yield much interesting outcomes on its own.
  • What experiences are reported by students on industrial experience? In answering this question, we are likely going to focus on interviewing students individually or in groups to find out their experience, guided by whatever particular focus we are interested in, such as questions about motivation, career awareness, learning from placement, etc. This research has the potential to uncover rich narratives informing our understanding of industrial placements from the student perspective.

The explanatory questions above can be further explored as follows:

  • How do students’ perception of their career-related skills change as a result of industrial experience? In answering this question, our research would remain focussed on student reports of their experiences, but look at it in the context of their sense of career development, their awareness of development of such skills, or perhaps identifying commonalities that emerge across a cohort of students. This research has the potential to surface such issues and inform the support of career development activities.
  • Why do some students choose to take up industrial placements? In answering this question, our research would likely involve finding out more about individual students’ choices. But it is likely to uncover rich seams that can be explored across cohorts – do particular types of students complete placements, or are there any barriers to identify regarding encouraging students to complete placements? “Why” questions tend to throw up a lot of follow-on questions, and their feasibility and scope need to be attended to carefully. But they can offer a lot of insight and power in understanding more deeply issues around particular educational approaches.

The comparative question above can be further explored as follows:

  • How do students on industrial experience compare to students without such experience? In answering this question, research might compare educational outcomes or reports of educational experience of students who did and did not complete industrial experience, and draw some inference from that. This type of question is very common among novice researchers, keen to find out whether particular approach is better or worse, but extreme caution is needed. There may be unobservable issues relating to students who choose particular options that result in other observable measures such as grades, and in uncovering any differences in comparing cohorts, care is needed that an incorrect inference is not made. Handle comparisons with caution!

At this stage, you should pause reading, and dwell on your research topic with the above considerations in mind. Write out some general research areas that have piqued your interest (the foreshadowed questions) and identify them as descriptive, explanatory, or comparative. Use those headline categories to tease out a little more what each question entails: what would research look like, who would it involve, and what information would be obtained (in general terms). From the list of questions you identify, prioritise them in terms of their interest to you.

I’ve also done this for my study looking into explanations in the chemistry laboratory, and shown my outputs in the figure below. I have found that the “how question” highlighted is of most interest to me – I am an educator and therefore am keen to know how we can best support students’ explanations based on pre-lab resources I can make for them. I want to know more about how valuable these resources are and what might be missing. For your research area and your list of foreshadowed questions, you should aim to think about what more focussed topics interest and motivate you, and write out the reason why. This is important; writing it out helps to express your interest and motivation in tangible terms, as well as continuing the process of refining what exactly it is you want to research.

Once you have, we can begin the next stage of writing your research question which involves finding some more context about your research from the literature.

Stage 2: Establishing the context for your research

Any scientific research will aim to build on what is already known, expressed in Newton’s famous adage of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, or Bernard of Chartres’ “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. To build on previous knowledge, we must first know what that knowledge is. A common query for new researchers is whether to start a research process by reviewing the literature or whether to start with the research question. It may seem logical that one should first survey the literature to summarise the extent of what is known, and identify a knowledge gap which will be pursued, but this is impractical given the vastness of the literature and the novelty of the research domain. However, it is also important that the researcher does not spend a significant proportion of their time finding out something that is accepted as fact. Spending a year to conclude that your learners’ outcomes are predicated by the extent of their prior knowledge will not result in any great input into the body of knowledge about learning, given that this is routinely accepted as fact.

Finding your feet

Before we discuss how we can integrate literature into our research question focussing, a word of comfort: chemistry education research is a young field and there is lots to explore, especially at post-introductory university level. Even researching aspects of learning that are accepted as “fact” in particular chemistry contexts has value; it allows a fuller exploration of particular issues pertinent to the teaching and learning of chemistry. Therefore while it is important to integrate with literature, initial work with the literature will likely be daunting, and may seem overwhelming. Your research interest and motivation should remain the main driver of your research, and over time, you will engage with appropriate literature. This might inform your question or even redirect your research. Remember that the focus at this stage is to work on refining your question and research design, so try not to get overwhelmed by literature – your searches at this stage should merely be to help you continue to focus your interests by adding some grounding to existing research. It is likely most of your research study will lean on just a handful of key articles, so it is best to take your time and slowly find your way around this new world!

Types of context

We have already remarked above that some initial work with literature to sample particular research areas or fields is beneficial, and this idea of interacting with literature to help further refine research focus is beneficial here too. Completing a literature review is described in a later section, but the focus at this stage is to determine some literature that underpins your research topic in general. This underpinning will come in two forms:

  • Theoretical underpinning; literature that relates to the topic that you wish to explore.
  • Methodological underpinning; literature that will give indications on how you might go about exploring.

Clearly as your project progresses, you will continually re-engage with the literature as your understanding and focus of your research evolve. Knowing that you don’t have to read “all” the literature at this stage of the project can help ease the burden of engaging with the literature at this stage. Even those who have long researched particular fields of study are continuing to find new and relevant literature in their field!

Let’s make some of this tangible. In the research focussing process mentioned above, I listed several types of questions. I’ve decided to narrowed my interest to considering how students on work experience are aware of their career development, how they acknowledge skills gained, and are able to express that knowledge. Therefore I want to have some theoretical underpinnings to this – what existing work can I lean on that will allow me to further refine my question.

As an example of how reading some literature can help refine the question, consider the scoping notes made about the following two articles.

  • A 2017 article that discusses perceived employability among business graduates in an Australian and a UK university, with the latter incorporating work experience:[2]
    • this study introduces me to the term “perceived employability”, the extent to which students believe they will be employed after graduation.
    • It highlights the need to consider development of career awareness at the individual level. It discusses the benefits of work experience on perceived employability, although a minimum length is hinted at for this to be effective.
    • It introduces (but does not measure) concepts of self-worth and confidence. Data to inform the paper is collected by a previously published survey instrument. Future work calls for similar studies in other disciplines.
  • A 2017 article that discusses undergraduate perceptions of the skills gained from their degree in a UK university:[3]
    • this study reports on the career relevant skills undergraduate students wished to gain from their degree studies.
    • This study informs us about the extent to which undergraduates are thinking about their career skills, with some comparison between students who were choosing to go on to a chemistry career and those who were considering some other career.
    • It identifies career-related skills students wished to have more of in the chemistry curriculum. Most of the data is collected by a previously published survey.

Just considering these two articles and my foreshadowed question, it is possible to clarify my research question a little more. The first article gives some insight into some theoretical issues by introducing a construct of perceived employability – that is something that can be measured (we call this operationalisation). This is related to concepts of self-worth and confidence (something that will seed further reading). Linking this with the second article, we can begin to relate it to the context of chemistry students; we can draw on a list of skills that are important to chemistry students (whether or not they intend to pursue chemistry careers), and the perceptions about how they are developed in an undergraduate context. Both articles provide some methodological insights – the use of established surveys to elicit student opinion, and the reporting of career-important skills from the perspective of professional and regulatory bodies, as well as students.

The above analysis is not exhaustive; rather it is intended to illustrate how we can use literature at this stage to focus our research questions and interest. Taking these two readings into account, we might further refine our question. The original foreshadowed question was:

How do students’ perception of their career-related skills change as a result of industrial experience?

If we wished to draw on the literature just cited, we could refine this to:

“How do undergraduate chemistry students’ perceived employability and awareness of career-related skills gained change as a result of a year-long industrial placement?”

This step in focussing is beginning to move the research question development into a phase where particular methods that will answer it begin to emerge. By changing the phrase “perception” to “perceived employability”, we are moving to a particular aspect of perception that could be measured if we follow the methods identified in previous studies. We can relate this rather abstract term to the work in chemistry education by also incorporating some consideration of students’ awareness of skills reported to be important for chemistry students. We are also making the details of the study a little more specific; referring to undergraduate chemistry students and the length of the industrial placement. This question then is including:

  • The focus of the research: perception of development of career skills.
  • The subject of the research: undergraduate chemistry students on placement.
  • The data likely to be collected: perceived employment and awareness of career related skills.

It is likely that as more reading is completed, some aspects of this question might change; it may become more refined or more limited in scope. It may change subject from looking at a whole cohort to just one or two individual student journeys. But as the question crystallises, so will the associated methodology and it is important in early readings not to be immediately swayed in one direction or another. Read as broadly as you can, looking at different methods and approaches, and find something that lines up with what it is you want to explore in more detail.

Stage 3: Testing your research question

Just as the process of focussing your foreshadowed question into a focussed research question will iterate as you read and think more about your research, the final stage of “fine-tuning” your question will also need some iterations. This is a comparatively minor phase and is likely something you will return to as the project work commences; methodological direction is normally set in the second phase. However, there are some checks that are worth highlighting to help you continue to refine and perfect your research question!

Personal biases

An important first check is to expose your own personal biases. The first research project for many new to education research is not drawn from the literature, but from something relating to their own personal experience. They may have been involved in some group learning activity that they really loved (or hated!) or may feel that a particular teaching approach is really great (or terrible!), and want to explore this more. As a rationale for project work, this kind of experience is great to draw on – it gives a real personal motivation in the project. But researchers must be strict about not letting their personal bias influence the research design or direction. One personal experience is not research data, and the researcher has a moral obligation to ensure their research is as objective as possible, not least to ensure that all voices in a learning scenario are heard.

Whatever we like to tell ourselves, there will always be personal bias. In my own research on learning in laboratories, I have a bias that means I cannot imagine chemistry programmes without laboratory work. If I were to engage in research that examined, for example, the replacement of laboratory work with virtual reality, my personal bias would be that I could not countenance that such an approach could replace the reality of laboratory work. This is a visceral reaction – it is grounded in emotion and personal experience, rather than research, because at the time of writing, little such research exists. Therefore I would need to plan carefully any study that investigated the role of virtual reality in laboratory education to ensure that it was proofed from my own biases, and work hard to ensure that voices or results that challenged my bias were able to emerge. The point is that we all have biases, and they need to be openly acknowledged and continually aired. I suggest to my students that they write out their own bias related to their research early in their studies as a useful checkpoint. Any results that come in that agree with the tendency of a bias are scrutinised and challenged in detail. This can be more formally done by writing out a hypothesis, which is essentially a prediction or a preconception of what a finding might be. Hypotheses are just that – they need to be tested against evidence that is powerful enough to confirm or refute them.

Bias can also emerge in research questions. Clearly, our research question written in the format: “why are industrial placements so much better than a year of lecture courses?” is exposing the bias of the author plainly. Biases can be more subtle. Asking leading questions such as “what are the advantages of…” or “what additional benefits are there to…” are not quite as explicitly biased, but there is an implicit suggestion that there will be advantages and benefits. Your research question should not pre-empt the outcome; to do so negates the power of your research. Similarly, asking dichotomous questions (is placement or in-house lecturing best?) implies the assumption that one or other is “best”, when the reality is that both may have distinct advantages and drawbacks, and a richer approach is to explore what they are.

Question scope

The challenge for any researcher regardless of their experience is to keep their research within boundaries so that it is feasible. What feasible means depends on the researcher and the resources available to them, but as a general guide, people tend to overestimate the scope of their research, and much of the early work with novice researchers is in paring back the scope of their plans to ensure that they have something feasible to work on. It is much better to research something in depth rather than lots of things at a superficial level.

Feasibility relates to lots of aspects of the project. In our study on industrial experience, the question asks how something will change, and this immediately implies that we will at least find out what the situation was at the beginning of the placement and at some point during or after the placement. Will that be feasible? Researchers should ask themselves how they will access those they wish to research. This becomes a particular challenge if the intention is to research students based in a different institution. The question should also be reviewed to ensure that it is feasible to achieve an answer with the resources you have to hand. Asking for example, whether doing an industrial placement influences future career choices would be difficult to answer as it would necessitate tracking down a sufficient sample of people who had (and had not) completed placement, and finding a robust way of exploring the influence of placement on their career choice. This might be feasible, but not in the timeframe or with the budget you have assigned to you. Finally, feasibility in terms of what you intend to explore should be considered. In our example research question, we have used the term “perceived employability”, as this is defined and described in previous literature with an instrument that can elicit some value associated with it. Care is needed when writing questions to ensure that you are seeking to find something that can be measured.

Of course researchers will naturally over-extend their research intentions, primarily because that initial motivation they have tapped into will prompt an eagerness to find out as much as possible about their topic of study. One way of addressing this is to write out a list of questions that draw from the main research question, with each one addressing some particular aspect of the research question. For our main research question:

“How does undergraduate chemistry students’ perceived employability and awareness of career-related skills gained change as a result of a year-long industrial placement?”

we could envisage some additional related questions:

  1. Are there differences between different types of placement?
  2. Are the observations linked to experience on placement or some other factors?
  3. What career development support did students get during placement?
  4. How did students’ subsequent career plans change as a result of placement?

And the list could go on (and on). Writing out a list of related questions allows you to elaborate on as many aspects of the main question as you can. The task now is to prioritise them. You may find that in prioritising them, one of these questions itself becomes your main question. Or that you will have a main question and a list of subsidiary questions. Subsidiary questions are those which relate to the main question but take a particular focus on some aspect of the research. A good subsidiary question to our main question is question (a), above. This will drill down into the data we collect in the main question and elicit more detail. Care should be taken when identifying subsidiary questions. Firstly, subsidiary questions need to be addressed in full and with the same considerations as main questions. Research that reports subsidiary question findings that are vague or not fully answered is poor, and undermines the value and power of the findings from the main research questions. If you don’t think you can address it in the scope of your study, it is best to leave it out. Secondly, questions that broaden the scope of the study rather than lead to a deeper focus are not subsidiary questions but rather are ancillary questions. These are effectively new and additional questions to your main research, and it is unlikely that you will have time or scope to consider them in this iteration. Question (d) is an example of an ancillary question.

Question structure

Research questions receive a lot of attention, and new researchers will likely have to think about their research question in discussions with their supervisors, and when planning and operationalising their research. No sentence will be more scrutinised in their writing! With such attention, it is tempting to want to make the research question read well and indulge in language when writing it so that it reflects well on the academic integrity and rhetorical capability of the author. Or in simpler terms – you want to look good! Try to resist these temptations and keep your question focussed and readable by ensuring it is as short as it can be, as clear as it can be, and as precise as it can be.

The length of a research question is the subject of much discussion, and in essence, your question needs to be as long as it needs to be, but no longer. Questions that are too brief will not provide sufficient context for the research, whereas those that are too long will likely confuse the reader as to what it is you are actually looking to do. New researchers tend to write overly long questions, and tactics to address this include thinking about whether the question includes too many aspects. Critics of my question might rightly point out that I am asking two things in one question change in perceived employability and change in awareness of career-related skills gained, and if I were to shorten it, I could refer to each of those aspects in subsidiary questions instead. This would clarify that there are two components to the research, and while related, each will have their own data collection requirements and analysis protocols.

Research questions should be written as clearly as possible. While we have mentioned issues relating to language to ensure it is understandable, language issues also need to be considered in our use of terms. Words such as “frequent” or “effective” or “successful” are open to interpretation, and are best avoided, using more specific terms instead (discussed later under operationalisation).[4] The word “significant” in education research has a specific meaning derived from statistical testing, and should only be used in that context. Care is needed when referring to groups of people as well. Asking how “working class” students fare on industrial placement is problematic, as the term is vague and can be viewed as emotive. It is better to use terms that can be more easily defined and better reflect a cohort profile (for example, “first generation” refers to students who are the first in their family to attend university) or terms that relate to government classifications – for example in Scotland, particular postcodes are assigned a socio-economic status based on income.[5]

As well as clarity with language, research questions should aim to be as precise as possible. Vagueness in research questions relating to what is going to be answered or what the detail of the research is in terms of sample or focus can lead to vagueness in the research itself, as the researcher will not have a clear guide to keep them focussed during the research process. Check that your question and any subsidiary questions are focussed on researching a specific aspect within a defined group for a clear purpose.

Moving on from research design

The purpose of this section was to explain the research design process in educational settings, and to prompt the process of writing out and refining a research question. As we will see in later sections, this time is invaluable as the decisions you make in thinking about your research design – however it is phrased in your question – will inform why and how you go about doing your research.

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Note and References Cited

[1] Blaikie, N. (2000) Designing social research, Oxford: Blackwell.

[2] Jackson, D., & Wilton, N. (2017). Perceived employability among undergraduates and the importance of career self-management, work experience and individual characteristics. Higher Education Research & Development36(4), 747-762.

[3] Galloway, K. W. (2017). Undergraduate perceptions of value: degree skills and career skills. Chemistry Education Research and Practice18(3), 435-440.

[4] Kane, E. (1984) Doing Your Own Research: Basic Descriptive Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities, London: Marion Boyars.

[5] https://simd.scot/#/simd2020/BTTTFTT/9/-4.0000/55.9000/

Further Reading

*This section was the basis of an editorial: Seery, M.K. (2020) A guide to research question writing for undergraduate chemistry education research students. Chemistry Education Research and Practice21(4), pp.1020-1027.

  • Creswell J. W. (2018) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches, New York: Sage.
  • Taber, K. S. (2017) Prof Keith Taber: The challenge of doing experimental studies in science education research, Royal Society of Chemistry Chemical Education Research Group Webinar, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcZQujMB07s [accessed: 23rd August 2021].
  • White, P. (2008) Developing Research Questions: A Guide for Social Scientists, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

To cite this page (Harvard)

Seery, M. K. (2021) What do out want to find out? Defining your research question. Available at: http://www.michaelseery.com/2-what-do-out-want-to-find-out-defining-your-research-question (Accessed: 31st February 2021).