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Developing Research Questions For Dissertation

How to structure quantitative research questions

There is no "one best way" to structure a quantitative research question. However, to create a well-structured quantitative research question, we recommend an approach that is based on four steps: (1) Choosing the type of quantitative research question you are trying to create (i.e., descriptive, comparative or relationship-based); (2) Identifying the different types of variables you are trying to measure, manipulate and/or control, as well as any groups you may be interested in; (3) Selecting the appropriate structure for the chosen type of quantitative research question, based on the variables and/or groups involved; and (4) Writing out the problem or issues you are trying to address in the form of a complete research question. In this article, we discuss each of these four steps, as well as providing examples for the three types of quantitative research question you may want to create: descriptive, comparative and relationship-based research questions.

STEP ONE
Choose the type of quantitative research question (i.e., descriptive, comparative or relationship) you are trying to create

The type of quantitative research question that you use in your dissertation (i.e., descriptive, comparative and/or relationship-based) needs to be reflected in the way that you write out the research question; that is, the word choice and phrasing that you use when constructing a research question tells the reader whether it is a descriptive, comparative or relationship-based research question. Therefore, in order to know how to structure your quantitative research question, you need to start by selecting the type of quantitative research question you are trying to create: descriptive, comparative and/or relationship-based.

STEP TWO
Identify the different types of variable you are trying to measure, manipulate and/or control, as well as any groups you may be interested in

Whether you are trying to create a descriptive, comparative or relationship-based research question, you will need to identify the different types of variable that you are trying to measure, manipulate and/or control. If you are unfamiliar with the different types of variable that may be part of your study, the article, Types of variable, should get you up to speed. It explains the two main types of variables: categorical variables (i.e., nominal, dichotomous and ordinal variables) and continuous variables (i.e., interval and ratio variables). It also explains the difference between independent and dependent variables, which you need to understand to create quantitative research questions.

To provide a brief explanation; a variable is not only something that you measure, but also something that you can manipulate and control for. In most undergraduate and master's level dissertations, you are only likely to measure and manipulate variables. You are unlikely to carry out research that requires you to control for variables, although some supervisors will expect this additional level of complexity. If you plan to only create descriptive research questions, you may simply have a number of dependent variables that you need to measure. However, where you plan to create comparative and/or relationship-based research questions, you will deal with both dependent and independent variables. An independent variable (sometimes called an experimental or predictor variable) is a variable that is being manipulated in an experiment in order to observe the effect this has on a dependent variable (sometimes called an outcome variable). For example, if we were interested in investigating the relationship between gender and attitudes towards music piracy amongst adolescents, the independent variable would be gender and the dependent variable attitudes towards music piracy. This example also highlights the need to identify the group(s) you are interested in. In this example, the group of interest are adolescents.

Once you identifying the different types of variable you are trying to measure, manipulate and/or control, as well as any groups you may be interested in, it is possible to start thinking about the way that the three types of quantitative research question can be structured. This is discussed next.

STEP THREE
Select the appropriate structure for the chosen type of quantitative research question, based on the variables and/or groups involved

The structure of the three types of quantitative research question differs, reflecting the goals of the question, the types of variables, and the number of variables and groups involved. By structure, we mean the components of a research question (i.e., the types of variables, groups of interest), the number of these different components (i.e., how many variables and groups are being investigated), and the order that these should be presented (e.g., independent variables before dependent variables). The appropriate structure for each of these quantitative research questions is set out below:

Structure of descriptive research questions

There are six steps required to construct a descriptive research question: (1) choose your starting phrase; (2) identify and name the dependent variable; (3) identify the group(s) you are interested in; (4) decide whether dependent variable or group(s) should be included first, last or in two parts; (5) include any words that provide greater context to your question; and (6) write out the descriptive research question. Each of these steps is discussed in turn:

  1. Choose your starting phrase

  2. Identify and name the dependent variable

  3. Identify the group(s) you are interested in

  4. Decide whether the dependent variable or group(s) should be included first, last or in two parts

  5. Include any words that provide greater context to your question

  6. Write out the descriptive research question

FIRST
Choose your starting phrase

You can start descriptive research questions with any of the following phrases:

How many?
How often?
How frequently?
How much?
What percentage?
What proportion?
To what extent?
What is?
What are?

Some of these starting phrases are highlighted in blue text in the examples below:

How many calories do American men and women consume per day?

How often do British university students use Facebook each week?

What are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?

What proportion of British male and female university students use the top 5 social networks?

What percentage of American men and women exceed their daily calorific allowance?

SECOND
Identify and name the dependent variable

All descriptive research questions have a dependent variable. You need to identify what this is. However, how the dependent variable is written out in a research question and what you call it are often two different things. In the examples below, we have illustrated the name of the dependent variable and highlighted how it would be written out in the blue text.

Name of the dependent variableHow the dependent variable is written out
Daily calorific intakeHow many calories do American men and women consume per day?
Daily calorific intakeWhat percentage of American men and women exceed their daily calorific allowance?
Weekly Facebook usageHow often do British university students use Facebook each week?
Factors influencing career choicesWhat are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?
Use of the top 5 social networksWhat proportion of British male and female university students use the top 5 social networks?

The first two examples highlight that while the name of the dependent variable is the same, namely daily calorific intake, the way that this dependent variable is written out differs in each case.

THIRD
Identify the group(s) you are interested in

All descriptive research questions have at least one group, but can have multiple groups. You need to identify this group(s). In the examples below, we have identified the group(s) in the green text.

How many calories do American men and women consume per day?

How often do British university students use Facebook each week?

What are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?

What proportion of British male and female university students use the top 5 social networks?

What percentage of American men and women exceed their daily calorific allowance?

The examples illustrate the difference between the use of a single group (e.g., British university students) and multiple groups (e.g., American men and women).

FOURTH
Decide whether the dependent variable or group(s) should be included first, last or in two parts

Sometimes it makes more sense for the dependent variable to appear before the group(s) you are interested in, but sometimes it is the opposite way around. The following examples illustrate this, with the group(s) in green text and the dependent variable in blue text:

Group 1st; dependent variable 2nd:

How often do British university studentsuse Facebook each week?

Dependent variable 1st; group 2nd:

What are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?

Sometimes, the dependent variable needs to be broken into two parts around the group(s) you are interested in so that the research question flows. Again, the group(s) are in green text and the dependent variable is in blue text:

How many calories do American men and womenconsume per day?

Of course, you could choose to restructure the question above so that you do not have to split the dependent variable into two parts. For example:

How many calories are consumed per day by American men and women?

When deciding whether the dependent variable or group(s) should be included first or last, and whether the dependent variable should be broken into two parts, the main thing you need to think about is flow: Does the question flow? Is it easy to read?

FIFTH
Include any words that provide greater context to your question

Sometimes the name of the dependent variable provides all the explanation we need to know what we are trying to measure. Take the following examples:

How many calories do American men and women consume per day?

How often do British university students use Facebook each week?

In the first example, the dependent variable is daily calorific intake (i.e., calories consumed per day). Clearly, this descriptive research question is asking us to measure the number of calories American men and women consume per day. In the second example, the dependent variable is Facebook usage per week. Again, the name of this dependent variable makes it easy for us to understand that we are trying to measure the often (i.e., how frequently; e.g., 16 times per week) British university students use Facebook.

However, sometimes a descriptive research question is not simply interested in measuring the dependent variable in its entirety, but a particular component of the dependent variable. Take the following examples in red text:

What percentage of American men and women exceed their daily calorific allowance?

What are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?

In the first example, the research question is not simply interested in the daily calorific intake of American men and women, but what percentage of these American men and women exceeded their daily calorific allowance. So the dependent variable is still daily calorific intake, but the research question aims to understand a particular component of that dependent variable (i.e., the percentage of American men and women exceeding the recommend daily calorific allowance). In the second example, the research question is not only interested in what the factors influencing career choices are, but which of these factors are the most important.

Therefore, when you think about constructing your descriptive research question, make sure you have included any words that provide greater context to your question.

SIXTH
Write out the descriptive research question

Once you have these details ? (1) the starting phrase, (2) the name of the dependent variable, (3) the name of the group(s) you are interested in, and (4) any potential joining words ? you can write out the descriptive research question in full. The example descriptive research questions discussed above are written out in full below:

How many calories do American men and women consume per day?

How often do British university students use Facebook each week?

What are the most important factors that influence the career choices of Australian university students?

What proportion of British male and female university students use the top 5 social networks?

What percentage of American men and women exceed their daily calorific allowance?

In the section that follows, the structure of comparative research questions is discussed.

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Research questions indicate what you will help answer through your research and provide structure for your dissertation.

They usually include both a main research question (which is the fundamental question you are exploring) and sub-questions (which assist you in answering the main question).

Types of research questions

Many different kinds of research questions exist. The kind you choose to use in your dissertation determines the type of research you will need to conduct and the research methods you will ultimately employ (e.g., interviews).

While it’s important to give some thought to the kinds of research question you will use, don’t get too hung up on the matter. The categories are often intertwined and it is possible to a question may actually be a combination of two or more.

What types of questions should you use?

You can use all of the above categories of questions in your dissertation. Your decision may be guided by the kind of research you want or are required to do. Nonetheless, bear in mind that not all research question types are suitable for a main research question . For example, a main question should not be evaluative.

It’s also important to remember that while some questions may fall clearly into one particular category, others may represent a combination of question types.

The research questions in a dissertation are divided into a main research question and a series of sub-questions:

  • Main question
  • Sub-question 1
  • Sub-question 2
  • Sub-question 3 etc.

Main research question

The main research question plays a leading role in your dissertation. It usually reflects a variety of research question categories.

Sub-questions

Sub-questions are shorter, less complex questions. They generally fall squarely into one research question category.

Descriptive questions

These questions are useful for really getting to know the subject you are investigating. They are usually the starting point of research and will help you to get clear on the topic of your dissertation.

Descriptive questions are about the here and now. Their answers may describe a situation, concept or person based on your own observations or information you have collected.

Examples of descriptive questions

What is the world’s population?

What steps will the government take in the coming year to reduce the tax burden?

What measures are primary schools in the US taking for children with autism?

Comparative questions

Comparative questions are useful if you want to explore the differences and similarities between two or more items.

Examples of comparative questions

What is the difference between sign language and body language?

What are the similarities of the political systems in the Netherlands and Russia?

Defining questions

Defining questions allow you to determine how your topic relates to the larger picture. They are useful for characterizing and classifying a phenomenon.

Examples of defining questions

How can the new subclass that is emerging in Germany be characterized?

How can socialists be classified within this emerging subclass?

Evaluative/normative questions

Evaluative or normative questions are used when you want to determine the value of something (for example, how desirable, good, normal or usable it is), as they enable you to provide an opinion or judgment. They are also sometimes called ethical questions.

Examples of evaluative questions

It is desirable that workers be closely supervised?

What is the value of having a healthy work environment for employees?

Explanatory questions

Explanatory questions are designed to determine the cause of a problem. As a result, they are also called “why” questions (although they may instead use words such as “what” and “how”).

Examples of clarifying questions

What is cause of the high sickness rate at Apple headquarters?

Why is it that every substance melts at a certain temperature?

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Predictive questions

As the name implies, predictive questions are used to predict something that will occur in the future. You can use them to identify an expected consequence.

Examples of predictive questions

How many mortgages will fail if the economic crisis continues until 2020?

What is the new tax plan’s possible impact on elderly people living alone?

Will public transportation remain affordable in the future?

Framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

Framing questions are used when you want to identify new solutions to existing problems, with a focus on the near future. They are often phrased as “How can we…?”

In many cases, framing questions cannot be tackled until explanatory questions are answered. If your main question is framing, it’s therefore common to use some explanatory sub-questions.

Examples of framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

How can we ensure that the UK will have 50% fewer illiterates within the next three years?

How can we reduce youth unemployment?

One risk of using a framing question is that it may lead you to provide advice about how to solve a particular problem – which is not your job as a researcher. Your goal is instead to provide research that those involved in a problem can use to help solve it.

Advisory plan

Advisory questions are helpful when your research is designed to make recommendations. This kind of research often involves preparing a separate advisory report for a particular client at the end of the dissertation process. In such cases, it can be useful to include at least one advisory sub-question.

Inferential questions

Inferential questions can be used if you want to measure a certain effect and most often give rise to at least one hypothesis. They should be closed questions (e.g., with “yes” and “no” as possible answers).

Because inferential questions are designed to measure an effect, they are answered with the help of experiments. As such they are common in scientific research.

Examples of inferential questions

Do students obtain better exam scores if they take classes online instead of attending lectures in person?

What effect does conducting preventive alcohol checks have on the number of people who drive after drinking?

Types of questions to avoid using as your main question

Some research question categories do not lend themselves well for formulating a main research question.

  • Evaluative questions, because they make it difficult to maintain your objectivity as a research.
  • “Why” questions, as they are usually not specific enough.
  • Inferential questions, given that they are too limited in scope.

If your main research question falls into one of these categories, revisit your problem statement and try to rephrase the question.

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