Research Question 101 📖

Everything you need to know to write a high-quality research question

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | October 2023

If you’ve landed on this page, you’re probably asking yourself, “What is a research question?”. Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll explain what a research question is, how it’s different from a research aim, and how to craft a high-quality research question that sets you up for success.

What is a research question?

As the name suggests, the research question is the core question (or set of questions) that your study will (attempt to) answer.

In many ways, a research question is akin to a target in archery. Without a clear target, you won’t know where to concentrate your efforts and focus. Essentially, your research question acts as the guiding light throughout your project and informs every choice you make along the way.

Let’s look at some examples:

What impact does social media usage have on the mental health of teenagers in New York?

How does the introduction of a minimum wage affect employment levels in small businesses in outer London?

How does the portrayal of women in 19th-century American literature reflect the societal attitudes of the time?

What are the long-term effects of intermittent fasting on heart health in adults?

As you can see in these examples, research questions are clear, specific questions that can be feasibly answered within a study. These are important attributes and we’ll discuss each of them in more detail a little later. If you’d like to see more examples of research questions, you can find our RQ mega-list here.

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Research Questions vs Research Aims

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “How is a research question different from a research aim?”. Within any given study, the research aim and research question (or questions) are tightly intertwined, but they are separate things. Let’s unpack that a little.

A research aim is typically broader in nature and outlines what you hope to achieve with your research. It doesn’t ask a specific question but rather gives a summary of what you intend to explore.

The research question, on the other hand, is much more focused. It’s the specific query you’re setting out to answer. It narrows down the research aim into a detailed, researchable question that will guide your study’s methods and analysis.

Let’s look at an example:

Research Aim: To explore the effects of climate change on marine life in Southern Africa.

Research Question: How does ocean acidification caused by climate change affect the reproduction rates of coral reefs?

As you can see, the research aim gives you a general focus, while the research question details exactly what you want to find out.

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Types of research questions

Now that we’ve defined what a research question is, let’s look at the different types of research questions that you might come across. Broadly speaking, there are (at least) four different types of research questions – descriptive, comparative, relational, and explanatory

Descriptive questions ask what is happening. In other words, they seek to describe a phenomena or situation. An example of a descriptive research question could be something like “What types of exercise do high-performing UK executives engage in?”. This would likely be a bit too basic to form an interesting study, but as you can see, the research question is just focused on the what – in other words, it just describes the situation.

Comparative research questions, on the other hand, look to understand the way in which two or more things differ, or how they’re similar. An example of a comparative research question might be something like “How do exercise preferences vary between middle-aged men across three American cities?”. As you can see, this question seeks to compare the differences (or similarities) in behaviour between different groups.

Next up, we’ve got exploratory research questions, which ask why or how is something happening. While the other types of questions we looked at focused on the what, exploratory research questions are interested in the why and how. As an example, an exploratory research question might ask something like “Why have bee populations declined in Germany over the last 5 years?”. As you can, this question is aimed squarely at the why, rather than the what.

Last but not least, we have relational research questions. As the name suggests, these types of research questions seek to explore the relationships between variables. Here, an example could be something like “What is the relationship between X and Y” or “Does A have an impact on B”. As you can see, these types of research questions are interested in understanding how constructs or variables are connected, and perhaps, whether one thing causes another.

Of course, depending on how fine-grained you want to get, you can argue that there are many more types of research questions, but these four categories give you a broad idea of the different flavours that exist out there. It’s also worth pointing out that a research question doesn’t need to fit perfectly into one category – in many cases, a research question might overlap into more than just one category and that’s okay.

The key takeaway here is that research questions can take many different forms, and it’s useful to understand the nature of your research question so that you can align your research methodology accordingly.

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How To Write A Research Question

As we alluded earlier, a well-crafted research question needs to possess very specific attributes, including focus, clarity and feasibility. But that’s not all – a rock-solid research question also needs to be rooted and aligned. Let’s look at each of these.

Focused

A strong research question typically has a single focus. So, don’t try to cram multiple questions into one research question; rather split them up into separate questions (or even subquestions), each with their own specific focus. As a rule of thumb, narrow beats broad when it comes to research questions.

Clear and specific

A good research question is clear and specific, not vague and broad. State clearly exactly what you want to find out so that any reader can quickly understand what you’re looking to achieve with your study. Along the same vein, try to avoid using bulky language and jargon – aim for clarity.

Feasible

Unfortunately, even a super tantalising and thought-provoking research question has little value if you cannot feasibly answer it. So, think about the methodological implications of your research question while you’re crafting it. Most importantly, make sure that you know exactly what data you’ll need (primary or secondary) and how you’ll analyse that data.

Rooted

A good research question (and a research topic, more broadly) should be rooted in a clear research gap and research problem. Without a well-defined research gap, you risk wasting your effort pursuing a question that’s already been adequately answered (and agreed upon) by the research community. A well-argued research gap lays at the heart of a valuable study, so make sure you have your gap clearly articulated and that your research question directly links to it.

Aligned

As we mentioned earlier, your research aim and research question are (or at least, should be) tightly linked. So, make sure that your research question (or set of questions) aligns with your research aim. If not, you’ll need to revise one of the two to achieve this.

FAQ: Research Questions

Research Question FAQs
How many research questions should I have?
The number can vary, but it’s good to start with one main research question that directly aligns with your research aim. If necessary, you can add more (especially if you have multiple research aims), or you can develop additional sub-questions to help you answer the main one.
What should I avoid when writing a research question?
Avoid using jargon, making it too complex, or framing it as a yes/no question. Your research question should invite exploration and analysis.
Can a research question be a statement?

Typically, a research question is phrased as a question, not a statement. A question clearly indicates what you’re setting out to discover.

Can a research question be too broad or too narrow?

Yes. A question that’s too broad makes your research unfocused, while a question that’s too narrow limits the scope of your study.

Here’s an example of a research question that’s too broad:

“Why is mental health important?”

Conversely, here’s an example of a research question that’s likely too narrow:

“What is the impact of sleep deprivation on the exam scores of 19-year-old males in London studying maths at The Open University?”

Can I change my research question during the research process?
Yes, you can, but do so with caution. Changing your research question means you’ll likely have to adjust your literature review and methodology, which is naturally quite time-consuming. That said, it’s not uncommon for the research question to shift or evolve somewhat after undertaking a comprehensive literature review.
How do I know if my research question is good?

A good research question is focused, specific, practical, rooted in a research gap, and aligned with the research aim. If your question meets these criteria, it’s likely a strong question.

Is a research question similar to a hypothesis?

Not quite. A hypothesis is a testable statement that predicts an outcome, while a research question is a query that you’re trying to answer through your study. Naturally, there can be linkages between a study’s research questions and hypothesis, but they serve different functions.

How are research questions and research objectives related?

The research question is a focused and specific query that your study aims to answer. It’s the central issue you’re investigating. The research objective, on the other hand, outlines the steps you’ll take to answer your research question. Research objectives are often more action-oriented and can be broken down into smaller tasks that guide your research process. In a sense, they’re something of a roadmap that helps you answer your research question.

Need some inspiration?

If you’d like to see more examples of research questions, check out our research question mega list here.  Alternatively, if you’d like 1-on-1 help developing a high-quality research question, consider our private coaching service.

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This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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