Research Methods: Developing your research design

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Developing a central research question or statement

After identifying an initial focus the development of an overarching questinon to direct the research can be viewed as a process consisting of the following elements (adapted from O’Leary, 2004):

  • Stage 1 - Developing an overarching question or statement from the initial focus requires identifying the distinct themes that arise from this focus. Carrying out reading of related research and theory is useful at this stage as it helps you understand the different aspects of the area you want to research. The emerging themes can be organised in the form of a mind map or a list.

  • Stage 2 - Narrowing the question by making it more focussed is an important next step as if the research question is too broad it will be difficult to plan the research and the findings will be difficult to interpret. Alternatively it should not be so narrow that it will not make a contribution that is of significance.

  • Stage 3 – Defining and clarifying the use of terminology.

Ways of categorising your central research question

Different ways exist for categorising research questions and you will see different terminology as you read more widely. One form of categorisation is shown below (adapted from used by Matthews and Ross, 2010 and Robson, 2002) with examples within the educational theme of motivation:

Classification of the purpose of enquiry

Example questions                           


To find out what is happening through an initial exploration of a social process or phenomenon, and to generate questions for further research.

What factors contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation in the primary age phase?


To provide a profile of individuals, events or situations.

What are the feelings of pupils who demonstrate low levels of intrinsic motivation in academic work?

What are teachers’ views about the significance of intrinsic motivation in teaching and learning?


To explain what is happening in a situation or problem - seeks to find out about causes and effects i.e. why events take place; why things happen as they do; how things happen; and what are the processes involved.

Why do some pupils develop low levels of intrinsic motivation?

Does intrinsic motivation contribute to pupil achievement?


To facilitate social action through making judgements, for example on the effectiveness of a particular practice.

Which aspects of teachers’ practice contribute to the development of pupils’ intrinsic motivation?

Another way of classifying central research questions was devised by Mason (2002) which focussed on the type of ‘puzzle’ being investigated. The following table gives examples of questions in the context of behaviour management. Questions that could be research using a qualitative or quantitative approaches are possible within these forms of categorisation.

Classification of the type of ‘puzzle’ being investigated

Example questions

Developmental puzzle

Exploration of how a process or system has developed.

What stages did a particular school go through in developing its approach to behaviour management?

Mechanical puzzle

How something works and why it works in this way.

How does a behaviour management system in a particular school work?


What are the factors that have contributed to the development of this approach?

Comparative puzzle

Comparison of similarities and differences between processes or educational contexts

What are the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to behaviour management?


How do the behaviour management strategies differ in the schools in a local authority?

Causal / predictive puzzle

Exploration of the influence of a particular factor on another factor or exploration of causes underlying an observed phenomenon or process – this type of question usually leads to quantitative research

Is poor teacher subject knowledge associated with difficulties in behaviour management?


How significant is the use of positive reinforcement within a behaviour management strategy?

Categorisation of questions in quantitative research

The following categorisation is specifically for questions that are quantitative in nature (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010):

Descriptive questions

This type of question does not involve comparisons or correlations, rather it describes using indicators of frequency of events or quantities using frequencies, percentages and graphs etc. In most research the question requires more than description, rather exploring relationships among variables.

Nonexperimental relationship questions

In this type of research the relationship between variables is explored

  • Relationship between groups e.g. Do higher attaining pupils have greater motivation than lower attaining pupils?

  • Correlation between two variables measured using a correlation coefficient e.g. Does the use of open questions by teachers facilitate more effective question generation by pupils in primary science?

Experimental difference questions

Experiments normally involve comparison of two or more groups to find out whether an intervention has resulted in significant differences in pre-test and post-test results e.g. Does the use of concept mapping facilitate improvement of pupils’ concept understanding in primary science?

Developing a focussed central question

The central question should not be too narrow as this will limit the scope of the research. The sub questions (specific research questions) are where you should do this, breaking the central research question down into different areas. Also if the central question is too closed it will make it difficult to adapt in response to findings during the course of the data collection – this is particularly important for qualitative research (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010). Conversely, the question should not focus on too broad a research area as this will make it difficult to design tools and to interpret findings in a way that will enable you to answer the question, as there will be too many aspects to look at.

Here are some questions that have not got a clear focus.

Question wording


How do mixed age classes affect children’s learning in science?

Which aspect of science?

What are the effects of mixed age classes on children’s development in science enquiry?

Which aspect of children’s development?

Do mixed age classes have a negative impact on children’s confidence in science enquiry?

Reworked question which has a clearer and more specific focus

Developing a hypothesis

The decision as to whether to include a hypothesis relates to the underpinning school of thought on which the research is based, so there is no right or wrong, but rather a matter of belief relating to the nature of the research process. Hypotheses are more often used in quantitative research as developing a hypotheses (or testable statement) involves predicting ‘the nature of the relationships between two or more variables’ (O’Leary, 2004: 36), which can be helpful in helping you to develop your ideas.

A hypothesis is (in most cases) a statement which predicts the relationship between two or more variables. Hypotheses are traditionally associated with quantitative research, however it is often possible to develop a hypothesis in a qualitative project and it can be beneficial to develop a hypothesis as part of the research design. One key difference between a hypothesis in a qualitative study compared with one in a quantitative study is the way it is phrased (Newby, 2014). Another key difference between a hypothesis in a qualitative study compared with one in a quantitative study is the way it is tested. In both qualitative and quantitative studies the steps would include developing the hypothesis, followed by data collection and analysis. However in addition, in a quantitative study, statistical tests would be carried out to establish proof. In a qualitative project the parallel to the process of establishing proof is the use of evidence to develop and present a convincing argument.

Some of the benefits of developing a hypothesis are that it:

  • helps you to identify and focus on specific aspects within your research problem

  • provides insights into the type of data that needs to be collected

  • enhances the level of researcher objectivity

(Adapted from Kumar, 2011).