Research Question

As a student, you're probably no stranger to essays, presentations, and other projects. The odds are that most of these projects will have required you to do some research. Solid research is so important as we can use it to formulate, investigate, and evidence an argument, topic, or hypothesis. 

Research Question Research Question

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Table of contents

    It can sometimes be tricky to know what we should be asking when we do research, which is why it's important to understand how to formulate effective research questions. This article will cover everything you need to know about research questions.

    Research Question, two cartoon men with questionmarks and lightbulbs in their heads, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Research is a key part of writing essays and other assignments.

    Without further ado, let's dive in!

    Research Question Definition

    Before we look at research questions, it's important to note that there are two main types of research: qualitative and quantitative. These are called research methodologies. The kind of research question you need to ask will depend on the type of research methodology you're using:

    • Qualitative research is based on first-hand evidence gathered by the researcher through means such as observation, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, and recordings of natural life. Research questions for qualitative research will likely be more open-ended as they are designed to help understand different events and phenomena. More detailed answers are required to satisfy qualitative research.

    'How do nursery-aged children between 2 and 4 years of age react to having their play interrupted for lunchtime?'

    This question is concerned with finding out how different children react to the same situation, and the 'how' beginning leaves the question very open-ended. Because the question is about a whole group of children, all of whom may have different reactions, the answer to the question will have to be very detailed and require a level of subjectivity.

    • Quantitative research is a range of strategies and techniques for quantifying or measuring certain variables being investigated and analysing this information. Research questions for quantitative research will likely be based on comparisons and relationships. A quantitative research question will aim to achieve objective and measurable answers.

    'What percentage of students in Kent University has sought help from college counsellors for feelings of depression or anxiety?'

    This question is concerned with finding out a percentage, which is a measurable, numerical value. The question is not concerned with the reasons behind the students feeling depressed or anxious; it simply wants to know how many students out of the whole student population of Kent University have reached out for support.

    Now that we have those definitions out of the way, we can look at our main definition. What is a research question?

    You already know what a question is – you probably use them all the time! But what makes a research question?

    A research question is a specific type of question that aims to help a person investigate a research topic and eventually draw a conclusion. In other words, the research question is the question that the research aims to answer.

    Research Question vs Hypothesis

    We've seen what a research question is in the above section, but how does it differ from a hypothesis? You might have heard both terms used during your studies.

    A hypothesis is a formal and often detailed statement that aims to predict the relationship between two or more investigated variables.

    The key differences between a hypothesis and a research question are that a hypothesis is a statement rather than a question, and a hypothesis predicts whereas a research question enquires (or asks!).

    'A-Level students who eat a banana prior to sitting a mathematics exam will perform better than students who eat chocolate before the exam.'

    This is an example of a hypothesis. It is a statement that is predicting the outcome of an investigation between two variables: food eaten before an exam and exam performance.

    Research Question, man writing in a notebook, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Before beginning your research, decide whether you need a hypothesis or a research question.

    Research Question Types

    There are three key types of research questions: descriptive, relational, and causal.

    We'll look at the definitions of each one in turn:

    Descriptive research question

    A descriptive research question is used when a study has the purpose of describing what is happening or existing with regard to a particular topic.

    'How many hours per week does the average British teenager spend watching Love Island?'

    Relational research question

    A relational research question is used when a study is designed to look at the relationship between two or more variables.

    'How does increasing the hourly pay rate of workers within the educational field affect job performance?'

    Causal research question

    A causal research question is when a study is designed to investigate whether one or several variables affect an outcome, or whether one variable affects an outcome more than another variable.

    'What effect does alcohol consumption have on driving reaction time?'

    Research Question Formation Process

    Before you start formulating your research question, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you to make your research question more targeted and effective:

    • What problem do I want to solve, or what information am I interested in finding out?

    • Why is this problem important, or why do I care about this?

    • Will my research be qualitative or quantitative?

    • What research have others done on this topic?

    • What variables can I include in my question that will get me the results I want?

    • How can I ensure all parts of my question are relevant to the information I want to know?

    • Is the research viable and realistic? Do I have a good chance of answering this question?

    When you've thought about these questions and have some answers in mind, you're then ready to start formulating your research question.

    Research Question Criteria

    When thinking about your research question, there are a few criteria you should consider as you formulate it. Making sure the question hits these criteria will help to ensure the question is as helpful and effective as possible.

    Your question should be:

    • Feasible – There's no sense in researching something that's impossible or non-existent.
    • Measurable – Your question needs to have a goal.
    • Clear – If the question is confusing, your research will be too.
    • Specific – You can't be vague or too general in your research, or you'll end up with too much information.
    • Focused – If your question doesn't have a focus, your research will be irrelevant and muddied.

    These qualities will make it much easier to nail down exactly what information you need to find out, and should make it easier to search for your answers.

    Research Question, weighing scales with question marks, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Research questions should be measurable, feasible, clear, specific, and focused.

    It also helps if your research question is interesting and engages you, as this will help you to stay motivated and invested in the research project.

    Examples of Research Questions

    So, now that we have a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question, let's look at some examples:

    'What effect does TikTok have on the mental health of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 when used daily?'

    This question is feasible as it is possible to set up an investigation or survey to ascertain how TikTok users feel after using the app. It's measurable because, through the survey (or another method), you would be able to get data to draw a conclusion. It is clear, as there is nothing confusing or overly complicated in the question, and it is specific because it is concerned with a particular demographic and particular app. Likewise, it is also focused rather than vague, which will mean the results of the research will be more helpful.

    This question could produce a combination of qualitative and quantitative data. The quantitative data could come from seeing how many adolescents have noticed or reported mental health struggles as a result of TikTok use, and the qualitative data would come from analysing the different reasons for these mental health struggles.

    'What impact do different legal restrictions have on the instances of driving under the influence of alcohol across Portugal, Spain, and France?'

    Similarly, this question is also feasible and measurable, as it would be possible to set up observations in each country to investigate how each country's laws influence driving. The question is clear and specific, asking particularly about these three countries rather than any country in general, and it is focused. Rather than asking about driving habits in Europe, the question has narrowed things down to just three countries and only looks at instances of driving under the influence of alcohol.

    This question would produce quantitative data, as the primary variable being measured is the 'instances of driving under the influence of alcohol' in each country. These instances are (to an extent) countable, and could be compared with figures (e.g., as percentages) from previous years when other restrictions might have been in place.

    'How have modern film adaptations of Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice portrayed feminist ideals through strong female characters?'

    This question is feasible as it would be easy to analyse these films to see how feminism is portrayed, and the research goal is clear. The results of the research would be measurable, as certain feminist qualities could be attributed to the female characters, and the question asks specifically about two films rather than all film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. The question is also focused as it only asks about the theme of feminism rather than other social and political factors.

    This research question would produce qualitative data as the films, characters, and themes being explored would be analysed subjectively. This would result in many different interpretations being possible.

    Research Question - Key Takeaways

    • Research questions must be carefully constructed in order to enable effective and efficient research.
    • A research question is different from a hypothesis in that a hypothesis is a statement that predicts the results of an investigation, whereas a research question enquires.
    • There are three types of research questions: descriptive, relational, and causal.
    • Research questions must be feasible, measurable, clear, specific, and focused in order to be effective.
    • There are two types of research, qualitative and quantitative, and the type of research used will determine what kind of question to use.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Research Question

    What are some research question examples?

    Some good research question examples inlcude:


    • 'What effect does TikTok have on the mental health of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 when used daily?'
    • 'What impact do different legal restrictions have on the instances of driving under the influence of alcohol across Portugal, Spain, and France?'
    • 'How have modern film adaptations of the Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice portrayed feminist ideal through strong female characters?'

    How do you develop a strong research question?

    You can make sure your research question is strong by ensuring it is feasible, measurable, clear, specific, and focused. It also helps if your question is interesting and tackles a topic or issue that people are interested in or care about. 

    What effect does a research question have on the research process?

    The research question is the jumping-off point for the research process. Without a decent research question, your research would be unfocused and disorganised, and could lead to you gathering relevant or incorrect information.

    What is a general research question?

    A general research question is one that is possibly a bit vague, or does not tackle a specific issue. It could be a question that covers too many variables. An example could be:


    • 'What effect does social media use have on teenage mental health?'


    This question is general because it is not specific and is covering a wide range of factors. 

    What is a specific research question?

    A specific research question is one that tackles a specific and relevant topic or variable, or the relationship between two or more specific variables. Specific research questions are clear and focused. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    'A-Level students who eat a banana prior to sitting a mathematics exam will perform better than students who eat chocolate before the exam.'Is this a research question or a hypothesis?

    Which of these is an example of a descriptive research question?

    'What percentage of students in Kent University have sought help from college counsellors for feelings of depression or anxiety?'Is this question qualitative or quantitative?

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