Research questions: The foundation of scientific inquiry

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Research questions: The foundation of scientific inquiry

The one thing all scientific studies have in common is that they are intended to help us learn something. Whether that something is specific (such as how the temperature of a chemical reaction affects the products or what the most important factors in building a greenhouse are) or more general (such as how to deal with the plastic waste in the ocean or how the pandemic has affected education), all research needs a purpose. That’s the role of the research question. This article will provide some guidance on how to write a research question.


What is a research question?


Research questions are the foundation of scientific studies. They serve to guide the research and keep it targeted, set boundaries, and define limits. Without a research question to provide structure, researchers may deviate from their objectives, wasting time and resources and weakening the study.

A research question is simply the question that we’re trying to answer with the study. It typically concerns a problem or issue that needs to be addressed. Research questions are typically introduced at the beginning of the paper and addressed again in the discussion at the end of the paper or in the conclusion.1

The way the research question is written is extremely important. Readers use it to form a quick opinion on the quality of the study and decide if they want to continue reading the paper. It can also help determine whether or not you obtain funding for your work.

How is a research question different from a hypothesis?  


In general, the research question is a question, and the hypothesis is a statement.

The research question is the guiding structure, and the hypothesis is the quantification of the research question. The hypothesis is a specific statement of what a researcher is trying to prove or disprove.

Where are research questions typically used?

Research questions are used in all fields of research, from engineering and computer science to anthropology and education, both in quantitative and qualitative studies as well as in mixed-method studies. All research is designed to learn something – that’s the nature of research. The research question reflects what the researcher is trying to learn.

The research question both depends on and guides the type of study being conducted. The two major types of research design are quantitative and qualitative, although a study can also be a mixture of the two. The wording of the question will vary by design type.

Quantitative research is based on measurements and variables. This type of study usually involves using statistics to compare groups or to identify related factors. For example, how does the weather affect the spread of COVID-19, or is one technique better than another for creating biofuel from food waste.

Qualitative research is concerned more with words and meanings than with numbers. The aims of these studies are usually to explore, understand, or discover. For example, what factors influence homelessness in major cities, or what is the meaning of ethics in engineering.

When should a research question be formulated?

Because the research question guides the study, it should be formulated prior to creating the research design. The study method and design will flow from the research question.

When starting a research study or report, the first thing you need to know is what your aims are. This will save a lot of wasted time and effort later.

How to formulate a research question

The formulation of a research question is a process, and the question will change and be refined as the aims of the study become more targeted. Thus, research questions are dynamic.1

However, following some defined steps will make the process easier and help you to formulate your research question. Keep in mind that these steps are very general, and depending on your situation, may require more or less attention.


1. Choose a broad topic – Choose an area that interests you as you will be spending a lot of time with it. It’s also a good idea to choose a topic that’s relevant and lends itself to investigation.

Example: Sustainable building materials

2. Conduct a literature review on the topic – This will serve two purposes. First, you will find out what research is currently being done in your chosen area.  This review will also show you some potential gaps in the literature that might provide a direction for your research.

3. Narrow your focus – Determine some potential research questions. You can use the gaps you found in the previous step or aim to extend or refute another researcher’s work.

Example: What are the structural and thermal impacts of using recycled plastic bottles as building units to replace concrete blocks?

4. Evaluate the potential question – This is to determine if the question is sound or needs further revision. One common method of evaluating research questions is using the FINER criteria.2

F – Feasible: The question is well within your ability to investigate. You have the skills and available resources to collect data and complete the research.

I – Interesting: The research is interesting not only to you but also to other researchers and your community.

N – Novel: The research adds knowledge to the field of study; for example, it adds insight or confirms previous work.

E – Ethical: The research question and study is one that can be approved by review boards and other appropriate authorities.

R – Relevant: The research question is relevant to your field of study and, ideally, to the public interest.

Applying these criteria to our example of using recycled plastic bottles as building materials, assuming we have the resources to conduct this study, the research question meets all of these points.

5. Properly construct the research question –A strong and effective research question is clear and well written. The PICO framework,3 commonly used in quantitative studies, can help you formulate a strong research question by ensuring that all the important aspects of the question are addressed.

P – population, problem, process: In engineering, this is most likely a problem or process. In our example, the process is building construction.

I – intervention, improvement, investigation: What are the possible solutions? We are looking at improving the sustainability of building construction by using recycled plastic.

C – comparison: In many cases, this usually means comparing different groups, subjects or methods (for example, current practice or new method). In our example, the study will involve a comparison of the structural and thermal characteristics of current practice with a proposed new method.

O – outcome: This refers to measuring what worked best. The result of the study will indicate whether the recycled plastic worked as well as concrete in this instance.


What are some common mistakes when formulating a research question?

Some pitfalls to look out for when formulating your research question:

  • The language is too vague or unclear for the reader to completely understand the aims of the study.
  • The question is too complicated to address in a single study.
  • The question is too simple or can be adequately answered by “yes” or “no.”
  • The research question is posed in a way that already implies the answer or reflects an opinion.
  • The question is not interesting or relevant – nobody cares about the answer.



1. How to write a research question: types, steps, and examples. [Accessed 12 May 2022].

2. Indeed Career Guide. How To write a research question: a guide with examples. [Accessed 12 May 2022].

3. Fandino, W. Formulating a good research question: Pearls and pitfalls. Indian Journal of Anaesthesia. 63 (2019). doi: 10.4103/ija.IJA_198_19.

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Published on: May 20, 2022

Extensive experience in education with a strong STEM background; passionate about lifelong learning, for myself and others
See more from Jennifer Ulz


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