The first stage in identifying your research question should be your rationale for the study; essentially, a clear sense of what it is you actually want to know and why. Further to this, it is important to consider whether it is actually possible to find answers to the questions that you have; sometimes, the reason why there are gaps in a certain areas is due to the difficulty in actually addressing these areas. This process of translating your very general research aim or purpose into “specific, concrete questions to which specific, concrete answers can be given” (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2007, p. 81) is known as operationalising. Finally, careful consideration needs to be given to (and making clear) what the importance of the research is: who or what will benefit from potential “answers” to your question; will it advance knowledge and will it contribute to practice? (Savin-Baden and Howell Major, 2013).

It is important to note that your question sets the foundation for the sort of research that you intend (and will be able) to carry out, and the wording of the question carries clear implications for the type of approach and overall research that will follow. Qualitative research questions, for instance, are designed from inference and observation and tend to start with “what” or how”; unlike experimental approaches, the question “requires reliance on inductive logic and is not stated in the research hypothesis” (Savin-Baden & Howell Major, 2013). Once you have identified the main elements, you can begin developing your research question.

Questions to ask yourself when identifying your research question

  • What is my broad area of interest?
  • What is the broader relevance of this topic?
  • Why is this of interest to me?
  • What are the key theories/concepts informing this research?
  • Within my broad area of interest, what do I want to know?
  • How can I answer this question i.e. which methods can I use?
  • What are the possible limitations of this question?

Further reading

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2007), Chapter 3 – “Planning educational research” in Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., Research Methods in Education. Abingdon, Routledge, 6th edn, pp. 78-99.

Mattick, K., Johnston, J. & de la Croix, A. (2018), “How to…write a good research question”. The Clinical Teacher, 15, pp. 104-108.

Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C. (2013), Chapter 7 – “Research questions” in Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C., Qualitative Research.  The essential guide to theory and practice. Abingdon: Routledge

Research planning tool [pdf] - a worksheet to help you write your research question