A research question is a question that a study or research effort has to answer. Research questions apply to both qualitative and quantitative research. They usually mirror key aspects of the study, particularly the variables and the research problem. Like the hypothesis and research problem, the research question is answered after data has been analyzed and interpreted at the later stages of the research. A study may have one or more research questions. Research questions are important because they help guide the direction or focus of the study. Although it’s not always possible to separate the good research questions from the bad research questions, it is nontheless possible to describe what makes a good research question good, and likewise, what makes a bad research question bad. Below, you’ll find some important points to consider when writing your research questions. Do keep in mind that some preliminary research should be done on the types of research questions that are typically posed in your field of study.
Types of research questions
Quantitative research questions
Quantitative research questions are framed in a way data helps the researcher to gather numerical data, test hypotheses, and statistically analyze the collected data. They usually capture the sample or population of interest as well as the dependent and independent variables. The overall intention is to operationalize the research objectives with a view to solving the research problem. They can be further categorized into three types:
Descriptive research questions aim to describe the key issues, variables, or concepts in research. The word “describe” means quantifying whatever variables, etc., you are interested in measuring. For instance, what is the magnitude of the relationship between inflation and money supply for the period under review? What level of inflation should an economy tolerate?
Comparative research questions seek to determine the differences between two or more groups in one or more dependent variables (although often just a single dependent variable). Such questions are usually framed to start with “What is the difference in?” a particular dependent variable. For example, what is the difference in the annual exam scores of male and female undergraduate students in Somalia between 1990 and 2021? Note here that the dependent variable is exam scores while the groups are male and female undergraduate students in Somalia.
Relationship research questions try to probe for associations, causal relations, trends, and patterns between two or more variables in one or more groups. Relationship-based quantitative research questions usually start with “What is the relationship?” which is then followed by the words, “between or amongst.” For instance, what is the relationship between literacy level and income in Somalia? Here, the variables are literacy level and income while Somalia is the group.
Qualitative research questions
Qualitative research questions differ from quantitative research questions. Qualitative research questions tend to be more concerned with exploring or describing phenomena rather than providing neat nomothetic explanations like is the case quantitative with quantitative questions. They often tend to provide complex answers, although this depends on the type field of study. Therefore they are usually broader or more general in scope and often more vaguely worded. Also, rather than ask how one variable causes another to change, quantitative research questions are framed to shed light on human experiences, understandings, meanings, or interpretations. They may [or may not] focus on only one variable rather than ask about relationships between two or more variables. The quantitative research question – what is the difference in the annual exam scores of male and female undergraduate students in Somalia between 1990 and 2021? can be qualitatively rephrased as “what are the implications of the exam scores of male and female students in Somalia between 1990 and 2021 in terms of their respective intelligence quotients.”
Examples of properly framed research questions (i.e. good questions)
Because of the importance of research questions, it is vital that they should be framed appropriately within the context of the research objectives, hypothesis, and problem. Ensuring synergy between these four components of research makes the process of data collection and analysis less cumbersome and confusing. A research question is properly framed if it can lead to the identification of patterns among variables, elicits impartial responses, and lends itself to the scientific method of inquiry. The researcher must ensure that his or her research questions are tailored to enrich the existing stock of knowledge and that the questions have not already been answered by previous research. The following are some examples of good research questions. Please note that these are merely sample research questions.
Structured or fixed response questions
Structured questions restrict the respondents to a set of specific answers or fixed responses provided by the researcher. They are also known as close-ended questions because the respondent cannot go beyond the available answer options [such as multiple-choice questions] or freely express his or herself. Structured questions are widely used in questionnaires because of the ease with which they facilitate the analysis and interpretation of numeric data. Some examples are presented below
What is your highest academic qualification?
Will you take the COVID 19 vaccine?
Likert-type and rating scale questions such as the ones below are also structured.
How satisfied are you with the COVID 19 vaccines?
- Highly satisfied
- Highly dissatisfied
- How would you rate Wikipedia?
- Very bad
Unstructured or free-response questions
Unstructured questions are those that allow the respondents to freely air their views without restrictions. Because of this, they are also referred to as open-ended questions. One advantage of open-ended questions is that they enable the subjects to provide more information about the question. However, classification and quantification of the responses are very difficult, a situation that can lead to serious difficulties in the data analysis
Below are some examples
Is open and distance education available in your country? ………………………
If yes, how is it operated? ………………………………………………………………………..
Do you think it is better than the conventional system of education? ……………
Examples of improper research questions (i.e. bad question)
A loaded question is a question that contains a hypothetical or unverified assumption which the respondent will most likely dismiss. Loaded questions can be seen as fallacious because they seem to make unilateral judgments such as presumptions of guilt [even when the respondent is innocent]. For example, asking a non-smoker: Have you stopped smoking?
Sometimes researchers incorrectly state the first question in way that is leading. Leading questions are those framed to elicit particular predetermined responses. They are suggestive and tend to try to guide [or lead] the respondent towards the specific answers wanted by the researcher instead of unbiased answers by the respondents. It is often a trick used by lawyers during questioning in court. The question that follows is a good example. What is your view on the difficult subject, physics?
The above question is leading because it supposes that the respondent already considers physics a difficult subject which may not be the case. Thus the ideal question should be: Do you consider physics a difficult subject? If yes, the second question then asks the respondent about their views of physics, after you’ve established that they do consider it to be difficult.
A negative questionis framed in such a way as to elicit a “no” response for an affirmative answer and a “yes” response for a negative answer. In other words, negative questions reverse the “yes/no” response order of regular, questions to a somewhat confusing “no/yes” order. The following is an example of a negative question.
Would you mind accompanying me to town on Monday morning?
Here, a “no” answer would imply that the respondent would be willing to accompany the person asking the question to town while a “yes” answer would mean the opposite. To avoid confusion, you should always follow your “no/yes” answer with a clarification or explanation of your answer. For instance
No, I don’t mind accompanying you.
Yes, I do mind. I have another engagement on Monday morning.
Because of their potential for being misunderstood or mislead, it is usually better to avoid using negative questions.
Research questions are important because guidance in terms of the direction of the study. They are used in both qualitative and quantitative research, and are thus useful regardless of the topics that are being studied. Because of the importance of research questions, it is necessary to frame them appropriately to align with the research objectives, hypothesis, and problem. Ensuring synergy between these four components of research makes data collection and analysis less cumbersome and confusing.