Skip main navigation

Refining the research question

In this step, we look at how to refine research questions and how mnemonics can be of help.

What should a research question be?

Burns and Grove (2011) outline that a research question is clear, interrogative and relevant, therefore pertaining to the research topic that you have chosen. It must also be focused, feasible and answerable with a research design within the time frame and resources that you have available.

It should contain the specific variables that you intend to study, as well as the sample (O’Brien and DeSisto 2013). It must also be ethical.

Another useful way to refine your research can be with the use of mnemonics, such as PICO (Smith 2008), which stands for:

  • Population or problem
  • Intervention or independent variable
  • Comparison
  • Outcome

You can further develop this by adding an ‘M’ for ‘Methodology’ to make the mnemonic PICOM (Beitz 2006).

If you think back to the previous step in which we read the systematic review by Smith and Pell (2003), it was evident that there was a lack of randomised controlled trials guided by appropriate research questions investigating the use of parachutes to prevent death and trauma. You may, therefore, consider the M in this example to be randomised controlled trials.

This mnemonic can also include ‘T’ for ‘Time’ to make the mnemonic PICOT (Thabane et al. 2009).

Further reading

van den Bekerom, M. P. J. (2016) ‘Re: Parachute Use to Prevent Death and Major Trauma Related to Gravitational Challenge: Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials’. BMJ [online] available from [11 July 2019]


Beitz, J. M. (2006) ‘Writing the Researchable Question’. Journal of Wound Ostomy and Continence Nursing 33 (2), 122-124

Burns, N., and Grove, S. K. (2011) Understanding Nursing Research: Building an Evidence-based Practice. 5th edn. St. Louis: Saunders Elsevier

O’Brien, M. J., and DeSisto, M. C. (2013) ‘Every Study Begins with a Query: How to Present a Clear Research Question’. NASN School Nurse 28 (2), 83-85

Smith, K. M (2008) ‘Building Upon Existing Evidence to Shape Future Research Endeavors’. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 65 (18), 1767-1774

Smith, G.,S. and Pell, J.,P. (2003) ‘Parachute Use to Prevent Death and Major Trauma Related to Gravitational Challenge: Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials’ BMJ [online] Dec 20; 327 (7429) 1459–1461. available from [30 August 2019]

Thabane, L., Thomas, T., Ye, C., and Paul, J. (2009) ‘Posing the Research Question: Not so Simple’. Canadian Journal of Anesthesia 56 (1), 71-79

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Systematic Literature Review: An Introduction

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now