Research Methods: Developing your research design

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Wording your research questions

Comparing wording of questions used in qualitative and quantitative research

For research questions in qualitative research, the use of open words such as “how” or “what” allow for greater exploration of issues, as opposed to words such as “why” which imply exploration of cause and effect, which is more characteristic of quantitative research. Suggested verbs to use in qualitative research questions are: discover, understand, describe, explore. Suggested verbs to use in quantitative research questions are those which convey the idea of cause and effect i.e. they indicate the link between variables: compare, relate, cause and influence. However it should be noted that this is only a guide and there are many examples of research questions that do not fit these ‘rules’.

Making your questions researchable

Research questions should be researchable, that is, they should allow you to do research in relation to them (Cresswell 2011). That means that they should not be formulated in terms that are so abstract that they cannot be translated into practice (Bryman 2008). Also the wording of research questions should be as simple as possible so that it can be easily understood. There should be no terms that are ambiguous, therefore it is important to think through the terminology used and ensure that the best possible choice of wording has been selected.

This example research question illustrates the need to change an ambiguous term:

Do children with behaviour problems benefit from the use of concrete materials in mathematics?

The term ‘benefit’ needs to be more specific as it is not possible to take the research forward without first considering what type of benefit is to be investigated, for example:

Do children with behaviour problems show increased levels of engagement when concrete materials are used in mathematics?

Questions that are too ‘wordy’

Also it is important that research questions should be written as concisely as possible. The next example shows how by rewording a research question to make it more concise, the meaning can be made clearer:

Do children learn more effectively in science in practical sessions compared to lessons using worksheets and textbooks?

This question is too wordy and as a consequence of this the main focus of the research is not clear. Below the reworked research question carries the same meaning, but is more concise and easier to understand:

Possible reworked question:

Does scientific enquiry improve children’s learning in science?

Avoiding bias and assumptions

The way a question is worded can reflect biased views or assumptions held by the researcher. It is often very difficult for you to identify your own bias or assumptions that you have made and it is necessary to consider your wording carefully. Also it may be helpful to run questions by a colleague to identify these. It is important to realise that an operational definition of a concept is context –specific and that if you were to research the same issue in a different context e.g. psychology rather than education, the definition may be need to change (Punch, 1998, cited in Robson, 2002).

Below is an example of a question which illustrates how researcher bias can impact on the research design

Do teachers use worksheets in science more than practical activities because they lack confidence in performing investigations in a classroom?

The wording of this question indicates that the researcher strongly believes that lack of teacher confidence is the root cause of a high incidence of use of worksheets rather than carrying out practical activities in science. If this is not addressed at an early stage it will impact on all aspects of the research design including how questions are phrased in the research tools, which will impact on the validity of the research. Also it could limit the potential findings because the researcher does not ask questions that could identify other issues contributing to lack of practical activities.

Key points to consider when developing research questions:

  • The process of developing your research questions is the foundation of all your subsequent research.

  • The wording of the central research question needs to be particularly carefully thought through as it will directly influence your choice of methods.

  • Throughout the early stages of planning your research, reading will form an integral part of the process as it will inform your thinking and help direct the development of your research questions and research design.