Research questions; definition, importance, steps in developing a research question,characteristics of a good research question,advantages and disadvantages

1.1 Definition

What is research question? Is a research question just like any other question you meet anywhere in the streets?


There are several definitions that describe this term and in our case, we will consider three and then make a conclusion on what a research question is.

Definition 1: A research question is a specific inquiry formulated to capture data pertaining a particular concept or theory.

Definition 2: A research question is an investigative inquiry to search for an answer(s) pertaining a research problem.

Definition 3: A research question is a fundamental inquest framed in a way to gather information pertaining a certain behavior observed on a subject matter in the natural or physical phenomenon setting.



A research question is a specifically designed probe by the researcher/investigator to correctly gather answer(s) for either a research project, a research study, a dissertation, a thesis, or a review. It is the pivotal point at which research problem and research objectives balance with the research hypothesis and findings as indicated in our Figure 1.1 of intrinsic structure of our “Research” article.

Constructing a research question

Having the area of research interest in your mind, the right footing is setting of the relevant research question(s) the big question then is, how do we construct the question or those research questions if they are several?


To answer this question, the researcher need to be focused in the sense that, he/she should have already known the type of research to undertake; is it qualitative, quantitative or mixed in nature. This is because choosing a research question is the central element of both quantitative and qualitative research for it governs how the conceptual framework will be established. Therefore, the researcher must first identify the type of study (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed) before the research question is developed. There are two common approaches that should be used by a researcher when selecting criteria to build a research question. That is; FINER and PICO methods (Farrugia et al &Hulley et al).

2.1 FINER Criteria for Constructing Research Questions

The FINER method stands for;


F – Feasible-means that the number of the subjects to be interrogated should be achievable/or practically attainable. Such that as per the population size, the sample size selected should truly represent the population. Also, the number of technical persons to carry out the whole research process should be in place. Further, as it pertains to achievability, the researcher should have sufficient money resources and time and the study should be undertaken within the set reasonable scope in all aspects.


I – Interesting; the questions should be interesting or motivating one to answer without struggling. That is the audience should be aroused to promptly answer the questions.


N – Novel; the question(s) should be a continuity of previously asked questions in the past studies. Questions should not appear like stand-alone and from the blues. Continuity must be observed and this is possible if proper literature review was undertaken by the researcher before setting the questions.



E – Ethical; the research question(s) should be well framed in care of the subjects’ ethics. That is, the researcher has to consider the subjects’ social, professional and even religious demographics amongst other perspectives so as to ensure that no breaching of code of ethics of research.



R – Relevant; the suitability of the research question is of value addition in developing a successful research project. The research question should only address scientific knowledge leading to future research.

NB: Those 5 aspects are crucial in the construction of a research question..


2.2 PICOT Criteria for Constructing Research Questions

PICOT method stands for;

P – Problem; the problem should not be the commonly known social problems. That is, it is not a real problem, a social problem that the society, government, families or religious fraternities have faced in real life set ups. Instead, it is that unanswered question the researcher will use a scientific investigative approach to provide a solution.

I – Intervention (or Indicator); the questions being formulated should translate to aspects of concern that are measurable as it is in the requirements of specific objectives.

C – Comparison group; the questions set should be benchmarked with similar ones from the past studies to create relevance.


O – Outcomes; the results arising from the research question when data is collected and analyzed should be scientific.

T – Time; the research question should have components which translate to time sensitivity of both the investigator and the respondent. That is the research questions should not be set to imply waiting for the answers for forever. Time should be of essence.

Rationale of constructing research questions

Setting of research questions is justified because;

  1. It helps address a research problem or question.
  2. Dictates the methodology to be adopted in a study
  3. Helps the researcher/investigator to be focused on one concept and not mix up issues
  4. Help in project funding for the relevance and practicality of the research question can attract funders who are looking for an answer to a matter.

Characteristics of good research question

 Not all questions are of high quality to ensure achievement of the research aims. The following are some of the 14 key research characteristics of a good research question.

  1. Theory Based-a research question is not framed anyhow. It should be pegged on the theoretical foundation that underpin the behavior of the subject matter being studied. For example, a matter such as demand of a commodity may lead to framing of a research question such as; “What factors cause demand level of a normal good to change?” or “What is the relationship between Price of a commodity and the Quantity demanded of the same commodity?” you see, this research question is pegged on the theory of demand. It needs to be well grounded in current theoretical and empirical knowledge (know the literature)

2. Contextual Based-the research question should cover all the contextual perspectives of the subject matter being studied. In other words, the research question should not be out of context. This enables the researcher to be focused on the right study and the correct evidence is identified to make right conclusions.

3. Practical- research question should be do-able in all aspects. Be it within the set timelines, availability of financial resources, availability of the right personnel to carry out the study successfully and it should be of significance when answers to such question are provided.

4. Congruence to Hypothesis-Good question must translate to formulation of a clear research hypothesis and possible operational definition of the study variables. Because the research question is pegged on the research problem at hand, the characteristics of a research problem should reflect in the research question and again be seen in the research hypothesis for consistency reasons.


5. Clarity-a good research question should be clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do. There should be no ambiguity or grey area when it comes to what the research question is addressing. This avoids answering of questions in the wrong way or avoiding confusion. In other words, it should not attempt to address large issues. It is not a topic but is a particular question in a topic.

6. Creation of new Information- a good research question carry the potential of generating new information. A research question should not push participants to the same questions previously answered in the past study. This avoids waste of resources.

7.  Futuristic in Nature-research question should create a hint or room for future research to take place. It should carry the potential to propel for future research to be possible.

8. Real solution Carrier-a research question should naturally be providing solutions to a real problem in the society. Yes a research question emanates from a research problem which may not necessarily be of social nature. But at the end of it all a social issues has to be solved.  

9 Sincerity of the Researcher-a research question should portray the extent to which the researcher is interested in the research outcomes and the much he/she has invested in the research efforts.

10. Ethical Based-research question should incorporate the ethical issues of the research participants to avoid conflict of interests.

11. Clearly Addresses the variables or constructs to be examined-research question directly addresses the specific issues pertaining the study variables in a conceptual manner.

12. Objective Based-Research Question is not biased to some respondents or research participants such that it takes sides based on experience, gender or any other perspective. Therefore, a research question should be objective and not subjective. On the same breathe, it is not biased in terms of terminology or position.


13. Multifaceted-research question is of many faces or dimensions so as to accommodate diverse respondents to the question itself for the sake of assimilating a variety of answers from the respondents.

14 Simplicity-Research question should be simple to understand and at least manageable. In research, the questions thereof should be set in a way that they are self-explanatory and the respondent does not need a second party to explain the intrinsic meaning of the question.

Emphasis on good and bad research question characteristics

For the sake of clarity on the characteristics we have discussed above, consider this guidelines which are pegged on both good and bad characteristics of research question. Then you can adopt the same approach to guide you on your research writing using Table 1.1 below

Table 1.1: Guide to Writing Good Quality Research Questions

Research question

Critique (±)

What caused student failure in colleges?



Suppose it was framed as follows;

What caused 3rd Accounting students in Joy college to fail examination?

This question is NOT clear because the question does not specify which category of students, which subject failure has been registered and which college in particular. Also no clarity on timeline concept more clearly.

This question is now more specific for the respondent precisely knows the category of students, knows the college name

What makes parents unable to control their children bad behavior?

The right question should have been as follows;

What measures can be adopted by parents of Kick Rock village to ensure that their children grow with the right behavior?”

This question is unethical, biased and broad hence unsearchable



You see this question is ethical for although there may be children with the bad behavior, the question does not hint the negative behavior and again the current question is considering the place referred to.

Does Moses perform better in class than Morris?


The researcher should have asked a question such as “How do the performance of Morris in Sciences compare with that of Moses in the examinations of between 2015 to 2019?

This question is too broad and prejudiced: What is the rationale of one student being better than the other one?


 The second question is much more researchable. It uses clearly defined terms and narrows its focus to a specific population. For it does not talk of just any subject but also timelines are of essence.

As a country, have we ever experienced a decrease in demand of product Pee imported from Pepela country?

The question should have stated the following;

How have social-economic factors affected demand of product Pee imported from Pepela country?

The first question is not focused and it is too open ended and not answerable in a more specific manner.


The second question is more specific, and aims to gain an understanding of possible solutions in order to make informed recommendations for it is leading us to specific social economic factors to consider.


Step by step setting of research questions

Setting or constructing of research questions is not like making notes for a systematic approach is necessary to achieve quality outcome. So the question is, how do you write a research question to capture accurate information? The following seven (5) steps to guide you to the right research question(s).

STEP 1: Identify the main area of study or research

Since there are many areas of research, the researcher need to be focused on the area of interest to avoid confusion and being broad. There is power of focus for resources are not wasted by being channeled on themes that are not of any value addition.

NB: The area you choose should be interesting to you first and to your audience. Again, it should be fairly general to allow for flexibility is selecting several research questions. That is you should not look for a topic to be so specific that you can't produce enough questions to gather the data you need.


STEP 2: Carry pilot research on the topic:

Do first draft research to find out the available information so as to ensure that you do not carry out a study on an area with scanty data or information. With the first round test of the field, you will infer whether the topic is doable or not and also you will identify the most likely research questions to ask your respondents.  

STEP 3: Target audience screening

In this step, you should be careful to identify from the general population the most appropriate population or sample of respondents to target on. This will be based on the degree of relevance of the set research questions on the group. Some research questions obviously throws away some groups of respondents. In other words, you must keep your target audience in mind and slowly narrow your research to a topic that caters to a particular set of people or subject matter.

STEP 4: Revise the Original Research Questions

With the nature of research audience at hand, revisit the original research questions and tailor make them to be more specifically suiting the expectations of the audience you have at hand.

STEP 5: Brainstorm the possible outcomes:


After revising the research questions in step 4 above, carry out brainstorming session to find out the possible outcome and compare it with your expectations. If the outcome is on average as per your expectations, then proceed with sending the research questions to the respondents. If the deviation is wide after brainstorming, then further revision is necessary to ensure the questions fit the audience. This means step 4 has to be repeated.

Types of research questions 

Based on the nature of research an investigator is focusing on, research questions are divided widely in to three classes, namely;

Qualitative Research questions

Quantitative Research Questions

Mixed Research Questions

NB: For mixed research questions as the name suggest, the set of questions are mixed up for the type of study is the one commonly referred to as mixed research/study which combine both qualitative and quantitative research.


Importance of using the right research questions

Research questions is the conduit through which a research activity will succeed. Therefore it is necessary to highlight some of the importance of focusing on research questions in any study.  

  1. Shaping of research work-research questions act as sharpener of the original idea so as to remain relevant in the study hence making the efforts of the researcher more practical. You see you cannot be a diehard of your original research topic/work for it is just a stepping stone to build your research hypothesis.
  2. Give insight in decision making-research questions are subjective hence when researchers are formulating them they provide hint about most likely factors to consider in a study.
  3. Help in re-defining a research concept-research questions guide the researcher to focus on the research problem of the study without losing track as supposedly.
  4. Help in proper utilization of research resources-research activity has financial and other resource implications and if a researcher loses focus of the thematic area of study then resources may be misallocated for the wrong purpose. So research questions act as compass to the right direction.
  5. Time saving-research questions makes the researcher remain sensitive to timing of when the research findings are expected. So this tool helps in setting the time scope of the study.
  6. Motivator-research question keeps you aware that you are dealing with the right issue and this makes your interest on the topic remain intact.
  7. Motherboard to specific objectives-it is only through development of a good research question that the setting of the specific objectives is possible. This is because the researcher will be guided on the right literature to review.
  8. Help in planning for the research assignment- research question will help you to set out what it is that you want to answer. This can help you make a plan for your research, but might also help you to foresee any potential challenges or problems.
  9. Appreciation of the research output-with good research question, one is able to remain on track such that after all is done he or she is sure that the answer pursued is the answer gotten and this makes the researcher satisfied and motivated.

Difference between qualitative and quantitative research questions

Table 1.2 below summarizes the difference between the two types of research questions

Table 1.2: Difference between Qualitative & Quantitative Research Questions

Quantitative Research Questions

Qualitative Research Questions

Focus on causal-effect and relationship kind of inquiry data

Focus on experience based data from the research subject

Focus on collection of quantitative data or numeric information-ie numbers

Focus on collection of qualitative data or opinions of the respondents

Look for data for at least two or more variables

Look for data for only one variable or more

Rely on data which is of secondary nature

Rely on data of primary nature

 Result to data collection using longitudinal or time series methodology

Result to data collection using cross sectional methodology


About the Author - Dr Geoffrey Mbuva(PhD-Finance) is a lecturer of Finance and Accountancy at Kenyatta University, Kenya. He is an enthusiast of teaching and making accounting & research tutorials for his readers.