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Academic Research: How to Structure Research Questions

This article will help masters students create and structure questions within their research projects

Research questions are often considered more important than a research objective because they allow the researcher to refine their focus in more detail. They also provide the whole research with a structure because they often link to important sections of a dissertation, such as the literature review, findings and recommendations.

There are no fixed rules when it comes to writing research questions, although there are some important principles that you should seek to apply.

Confusingly, your research questions do not necessarily have to be expressed as a question; they can be statements of intent or aims that focus on one aspect of the overall research objective. Where you can express these as questions, it can help you to focus on what you need to discover to complete your research, but this is not always possible. We are using the term ‘research questions’ here to ensure that you distinguish this part of the process from your overall objective.

You should be aiming for around three to four research questions and no more. Too many research questions and it is likely that your research will be too broad or you will be trying to achieve too much in the time available. Too few research questions and you will have the opposite problem; you may not be exploring different dimensions of your problem. One formulation for your research questions is the following:

  • Question 1 – This question should indicate what body of research or what theories you will be exploring to explain the nature of your problem. The intention can be that you address this research question through your literature review and also in a discussion at the end of the research process where you engage with the ‘so what’ question.
  • Questions 2 and 3 – These questions can highlight the nature of the information that you need to meet your research objective. Answering these questions will allow you to design your data collection process as they will shape your methodological choices. For example, questions that explore perceptions or attitudes are often the basis for more qualitative research, whereas framing questions in terms of measuring relationships between concepts can support more quantitative approaches. We will explore this further in the following step, which looks at the use of research hypotheses.
  • Question 4 – This question can be used to frame the type of recommendations that you will seek to make based on your research. Clearly, you cannot identify what these recommendations will be before you have completed the research, but including this as part of the research questions ensures that you are focused on the practical outcomes.

Here’s an example:

To analyse perceptions of departmental managers towards the new Management Information System (MIS) and to consider the extent to which it contributed towards improvements in the reporting process.

The research questions that would allow us to meet this objective can be written as follows:

1. What are the key themes in the study of the management of change and forms of resistance to change and how can these be applied to experiences of the MIS?

This question frames this study as being about how change is managed in organisations and why people might be resistant to that change. There is a significant body of research literature in this area that can help to develop some themes that can be picked up in the following questions.

2. How do departmental managers understand the role of data reporting through the MIS?

This question indicates that the research will focus primarily on gathering the views of departmental managers. It also suggests that before exploring attitudes towards the new MIS, the research needs to get an insight into their general views on how they see this type of reporting.

3. What are some of the barriers to the effective implementation of the new MIS and how can these be overcome?

This question presupposes that there are some problems with the implementation of the new system, but it will enable the research to explore these broadly with different stakeholders if necessary. It also encourages the researcher to gather evidence of how these might be overcome, which will support the final research question.

4. Identify appropriate recommendations for how the MIS can be developed to deliver strategic and operational benefits and how this might develop insights into change management processes.

This question is framed as a statement and focuses on the outcome both in terms of the organisational benefits and where this will help to broaden understanding at a more theoretical level.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of research questions. They are the driving force of your research project and without them, you will not be able to produce a focused piece of research.

As we can see in the above example, the first question should form the basis of your literature review, questions two and three will help you structure your research methodology and findings chapter, and the final question will be addressed in the discussion and conclusion sections.

That means that the time you spend getting these questions right at the outset is putting you on the road to producing a good, coherent and insightful piece of research.

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Academic Research Methodology for Master’s Students

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