Research Methods: Developing your research design

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Application of ideas: Developing sub-questions and operational definitions in practice

Identifying the factors that are important in the system you want to research will inform the development of your sub-questions and for this you will need to establish operational definitions for the factors to be researched.

Examples to show how sub questions can be developed from a central question

Example 1

Central research question: To what extent does Enterprise Education in secondary schools contribute to the development of entrepreneurs of the future?

Possible sub-questions:

  • What are the main skills required to be an entrepreneur?

  • Do pupils learn the main skills required to be an entrepreneur during Enterprise Education?

  • Does current Enterprise Education provision change pupils’ perceptions with regard to their desire to run/set up a business?

Example 2

Central research question: Are written assessment methods limiting primary children’s ability to show understanding of scientific concepts?

Possible sub-questions:

  • What are teachers’ views and practices of written and verbal assessment in science?

  • Do pupils achieve more highly in written or verbal assessments in science?

Examples of the development of operational definitions for factors

Example 1

Consider what operational definitions are needed in the following question:

‘Do children with behaviour problems show a higher level of engagement in mathematics when using concrete materials?’

It is necessary to establish what we mean by ‘behaviour problems’ and our definition could focus on either:

- the nature of the difficulties:

e.g. difficulties encountered by a pupil in specific areas such as interpersonal skills.

- or the observed behaviours resulting from these difficulties:

e.g. pupils who demonstrate disruptive behaviour in lessons.

In practice in order to be able to determine whether a child demonstrates behaviour problems it is necessary to decide on the nature of observed behaviours that need to occur before classifying them as problem behaviours. These would be the indicators (operational definitions) of ‘behaviour problems.’

Example 2

Consider what operational definitions are needed in the following question:

Is there more on task behaviour when children are grouped in mixed ability groups, rather than same ability groups during scientific enquiry?

It is necessary to consider:

  • What constitutes on task behaviours? A checklist needs to be prepared of what the researcher is going to class as on task and off task behaviours.

  • How is ability going to be defined? Possibly change the term ‘ability’ to ‘attainment’ and focus on a particular area of attainment e.g. literacy.

Example 3

The following table provides examples of factors that could impact on the effectiveness of learning taking place through play in early years settings.

Factors can take the form of:

  • aspects of the physical environment

  • behaviours or actions of individuals interacting in that environment

  • attitudes or beliefs of these individuals

  • attainment of individuals (this might focus on knowledge, understanding, skills)

  • social and emotional aspects

Consider what indicators (operational definitions) could be developed for each of these factors. The table provides some suggestions. 


Possible indicators (operational definitions)

physical environment

resources available, layout of the room

behaviours or actions of adults

verbal interactions - questioning / clarification / suggestion, encouragement; non-verbal – body language

behaviours or actions of children

engagement and interest, verbal interactions

attitudes or beliefs

practitioner beliefs about the role of play in learning


evidence of learning taking place through play

social and emotional aspects 

interactions taking place between children during play