Making research questions is one of the most exciting parts of doing research. You get to choose what you want to discover.

Research questions form the backbone of research projects. Everything connects to them: the literature review, data collection and analysis, plus your discussion at the end of the thesis reflects back on them. Research questions lead the way through your research project. And because of the vital role that they play, it can be a little nerve-wracking to make them. 

But, when you think about it, we make research questions in our everyday lives:

  • When we go shopping for expensive items, we tend to weigh up the choices carefully and ask questions to research which is the best option. 
  • If we found a broken window, we would naturally become inquisitive. We would ask ‘What happened?’ and look around to investigate the situation. When we go shopping for expensive items, we tend to weigh up the choices carefully and ask questions to research which is the best option. 

Once you have finished the first draft of your literature review and a basic research plan, it’s an excellent time to make some research question. The questions will help you to focus and make your plan more concrete as you decide in detail what you want to find out.  

Main research question

So, now it’s time to make your main research question. This is the overarching question that you want to answer with your research – what do you want to know? There are a large variety of research question types, but let’s start simple with these four. 

  • Causation: To find out the cause of something/ why something happened related to your topic. Things that you might want to know the cause of could be a change, a problem or an improvement etc.
  • Comparison: To compare two or more factors of your topic. This could be useful if you have noticed that there is a difference between groups of people, places or times etc.  
  • How to improve something: To find a possible solution to an issue related to your topic. This is a good question type if you have noticed an obvious problem that you would like to try to find an answer to.
  • Understanding: To get a better understanding of your topic and create new knowledge. This type of question is good if you believe that additional knowledge is needed to understand your topic more deeply. This knowledge could then help to find the cause of a problem and possible solution.

Here are some examples based on a project to research the recent decrease in the number of Japanese students studying abroad:

  • Causation: Why has the number of students studying abroad decreased in the past 10 years? 
  • Comparison: Do more private university students study abroad than public university students? 
  • How to improve something: How can the Japanese government increase the number of students who study abroad? 
  • Understanding: What reasons do students have for not studying abroad?

Sub-research questions

Once you have a main research question, the next thing you need to think about is your sub-research questions. What other questions will you need to ask to answer your main question? Sub-research questions break down the main research task by looking at different data, but when combined, they answer the main research question.

Let’s have a look at an example research project. Imagine you went to your local supermarket Fresco last Friday night. It was around 9pm just before closing time, and it was FULL of customers with full shopping baskets. You had never seen anything like it! Naturally, you would start asking yourself “Why is it so busy tonight?” and start looking around at the customers and what they were buying. But, to answer your main research question, you would need different types of data to answer it: purchase data, time data, and customer reports. This means you would need to break down your main question into sub-questions like this:

So now it’s your turn to start making research questions for your topic. 

  • First, what do you want to know?
  • Second, choose which type of main research question best suits what you want to know: causation, comparison, how to improve something, or understanding.
  • Third, make some sub-questions to help break down the main question.

Have fun thinking about what you want to discover!

(Adapted from Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2018). Research methods in education (8th ed.). Oxon: Routledge; Lambert, M. (2012). A beginner’s guide to doing your education research project. London: Sage Publications Limited)