How to create quality research questions

For scholars, knowing how to create quality research questions is essential. The research question is the overarching, intellectually interesting question that will be answered by the research study.

Research questions set the stage for the entire study. They determine the literature review. They guide the methodology. They shape how the results are analyzed. 

During a CARISCA workshop held Sept. 22, 2022, faculty and students learned what makes a high-quality research question. The presenters, CARISCA senior technical advisors Roseanne Schuster and Adegoke Oke, outlined a number of criteria research questions should meet:

They outline the expected path.
A quality research question should set expectations for where the research is going. “At a basic level, the research questions are about setting expectations and leading the audience where you want them to follow you,” said Schuster.

They fill a gap in knowledge.
The purpose of the research question is to signal the gap in knowledge that you’re going to fill, Schuster said. This is called signposting. It helps the reader or reviewer stay focused. Be careful not to make exaggerated claims that the study is the first or only one of its kind, however.

They are complex.
Strong research questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They often begin with words such as “what,” “how” or “why.” Writing strong research questions requires synthesis and analysis of ideas before you even begin to pose a question.

They are researchable.
“You might think that’s incredibly obvious,” said Schuster, “but it’s really about asking the question in a way that it can be answered and that you can answer it.”

Unanswerable questions are those that are too broad or general. Questions also are not researchable when the right methods to answer them don’t exist or you are not trained to use those methods.

They are clearly written.
Quality research questions should provide enough detail for the audience to clearly understand the purpose of the study without further explanation. They also should be direct and succinct.

They are specific.
Along with being clear, good research questions are specific and focused. They should be written narrowly enough so they can be thoroughly answered in the space allotted. 

They leverage context.
Quality research questions provide a unique contribution, especially when including contextual variables in the analysis. When gathering data in a specific place, such as a region of Ghana, make sure to use variables that capture  the context of that place, said Oke. In other areas of the paper, describe why it is unique. 

Schuster provided participants with a checklist they can follow to write high-quality research questions. The checklist, often used in the health sciences, adopts the acronym PICO:

Population: Specify who or what is the focus of the study.

Intervention: Identify the new regulation, program, policy, approach or other “intervention” that changes the status quo.

Comparison: Describe the control group or standard that you are comparing your population to.

Outcome: Describe the dependent variable that is being measured or evaluated.

Following the presentation, workshop participants practiced applying the research question principles and PICO checklist to some sample supply chain management research questions. Then they broke into small groups to discuss their own research questions and share suggestions on how to improve them.

View the full presentation.