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What questions should research address?

Questions form the foundation of research. They comprise of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, which help tease out answers from our investigation and curiosity. There are also question around the time frame and the implication of your research that you need to take into consideration.

Research questions can be derived from reviewing the literature around your subject area or from following up on an investigation or event. Let’s have some understanding of the purpose of the different types of questions.

‘What’ questions

‘What’ questions require a descriptive answer and identify characteristics or patterns. For example, ‘What is the role of BIM in modern construction?’, or ‘What is the relationship between workers’ age and productivity’?

Some examples of ‘what’ questions relating to your research include:

  • The title of your research
  • The subject area or field of study
  • The aim or purpose of the research, which is usually a single sentence summarising what you are trying to achieve
  • The specific objectives of your research (which are usually derived from the aim of your research), although these can also be framed as a ‘why’ or a ‘how’ question.
  • The research question or hypothesis, which usually sets out the agenda for research

‘Why’ questions

‘Why’ questions investigate the causes, rationale, characteristics or regularities in a particular phenomenon. For example, ‘Why do some organisations succeed in retaining their positive reputation despite experiencing problems?’ or ‘Why do firms go bust?’. The why question helps identify the knowledge gap, and the benefits and contributions from conducting the research at a particular time.

Some examples of ‘why’ questions relating to your research include:

  • Has this area been researched previously? And how different will this research be from other studies in the same subject area?
  • What do you think will be gained by undertaking the research, in terms of the benefits or the contribution of your research?

‘How’ questions

‘How’ questions are concerned with bringing about change. For example, ‘How can managers change organisational cultures?’ or ‘How can procedures be improved in construction?’. As Grix documents:

‘We need to know the core assumptions that underlie the work and inform the research questions, methodology, methods and sources.’

(Grix 2001)

Some examples of ‘how’ questions relating to your research include:

  • How are you going to do your research?
  • How do you interpret soil data to design a pile foundation?
  • How do you draw a shear force and bending moment diagram?


The question ‘when’ relates to the time frame of the research, including resource availability and literature collection, and the timeframe for primary data and the research outcome.

So what?

The final question is concerned with the implication and the critical meaning of your research activity. The implied meaning of any research activity justifies the importance of its purpose. This implication to either practice or policy will bring about the change that the research sets out to achieve (in its aim and objectives). A practical demonstration of this ‘so what’ question is usually in the discussion chapter, with cross referencing to the literature review chapter.

Your task

You might want to start thinking about a topic for the draft proposal you are asked to complete in Week 2.

The topic you identify may come from a problem based on your own experience or it may emerge from a discussion with your peers or colleagues. It may be a topic related to a new problem or an existing, recurring problem.

If you like, you can share your initial ideas with other learners, who might be able to add to these.


Grix, J. (2001) Demystifying Postgraduate Research: From MA to PhD. Birmingham: Birmingham University Press

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This article is from the free online course:

Research for Construction Management

Coventry University