Research Questions and Design

Research questions

Because research questions define a research project, this is the place to start your investigation. Different sorts of questions demand different types of research designs, methodologies, data collection methods, and analysis techniques.

Broadly speaking, your research questions should pose a unitary query using unambiguous terminology and they should be reasonably answerable given available resources.

What to avoid

  • Compound research questions. For example: "Do new learning spaces inspire faculty members to employ new active-learning techniques that enhance student motivation and learning?" This question contains several distinct strands that should be disentangled and listed as separate questions.
  • Ambiguous terminology. For instance: “Are students more engaged after a service learning experience than they were before?” Student engagement is a popular concept in current educational discourse, but its meaning is not entirely clear. Do we mean affective engagement (improved feelings or emotions)? Cognitive engagement (increased intellectual interest)? Social engagement (greater interaction with peers or instructors around class issues)? Specifying a way of measuring engagement will often lead to greater precision in terminology.
  • Overly ambitious questions. For example: “Does using a problem-based approach to teaching evolutionary theory in introductory biology courses cause greater student acceptance of evolution?” Causal questions are among the most difficult questions to answer because an affirmative answer must not only document change over time, but also justify attributing that change to the putative causal factor. This can be challenging, particularly if circumstances do not permit you to use a comparative research design that controls for extraneous factors.

Research design

The design of a study (or its methodology) refers to its overall structure and to the important components of the research contained within that structure.

A research design defines:

  • who or what is being studied
  • the framework within which the study's research questions will be addressed
  • the information to be gathered
  • whether there will be any manipulation of study conditions
  • what are the hypothesized relationships among the matters of concern in the study

One important distinction in research design has to do with whether a study involves a single group, or multiple groups. In educational research, these are likely to be a group or groups of instructors, or students, or classes. Studies that examine just one group are appropriate when what is being studied is a new and relatively unknown phenomenon. When that is the case, the study is likely to be exploratory and descriptive in nature, built around questions such as:

How do faculty members adapt their classes to employ new types of learning activities? What difficulties do they encounter? What benefits do they perceive?

Here, what is wanted is not a controlled experiment, but instead a detailed narrative that provides richness of context, which other faculty members can look to for guidance.

Studies that examine more than one group are appropriate when the objective of the research is to answer questions that call for comparative data, such as questions about change over time; about the association between two or more variables; or about cause and effect. The research designs appropriate for answering these questions are described in a detailed but accessible way in William Trochim’s Research Methods Knowledge Base.