Asking Research Questions Christine A. Jesser, ScD Office of Research Seton Family of Hospitals March 2, 2009 Asking Research Questions • Research plan depends on your question – It is the point you want to make, to explore, to describe, or to know, stripped clean of any superfluous verbiage. – It is your research purpose stated in one simple, comprehensive sentence. • To arrive at this point: you will have to sift out all interesting but irrelevant distractions; – seek out the essence of what you want to know; and – move from a very broad subject to one specific point you want to make Overall Process • Coming up with the right question: 1.Is Not Simple 2.Involves a cyclical and iterative Process 3.Usually requires collaboration Frame a Question Information Gathering Re-frame Question -Literature Review -Talk with content experts -Information synthesis Move from BIG to small • The typical process of “defining the question” is to move from big questions to small answerable questions. • Big questions are usually answered by answering a series of smaller questions that relate to one another over time. The Process of Building up Research Questions • First Rule: Start With a Simple Question • A simple question has one stem and one topic. • Start with a simple question that means a question with one stem and one topic. – E.g., In this question “Who drove the train?” The stem is “who” and the topic is “drove the train” Second Rule: Use Action Questions • Some questions do not require action. • Any question that can be answered by a “yes” or “no” is not action oriented. These questions are “stoppers”. • The question has been answered, excluding the need to do any research. • Questions that begin with “should” or “could” are stoppers; they elicit opinions, not facts. • One important thing about research questions is that they must be: – action-oriented – demanding some activity on your part Third Rule: Use Active Questions • The type of question you ask about your topic is the basis for the design of your research plan. • Whether you go to the transportation libraries or whether you observe traffic flow, your particular activity is inherent in the question you have asked. • At the beginning of the research plan you need something that will provide direction. • Be concerned with the planning phase of the research with dealings in the future, for this reason: • ensure to ask an active question • active questions imply that the researcher will have to measure or observe something Fourth Rule: Do not Elicit Opinions •A statement declaring a fact (Speeding buses have an effect on accidents) require no action on anyone’s part. The question, on the other hand, (What is the relationship between speed and accidents?) demands an answer. •If your question can be answered by a simple “yes”, “no”, or “I don’t know,” then you don’t need to do research to find the answer for this reason: •ensure that you are not eliciting opinions •ensure that you are ending up with yes, no answers •Everyone has an opinion on each of the above questions. •Try rewriting each of your “should” questions into action questions that require some investigation to find the answer. You will notice a great difference between action and opinion questions. Fifth Rule: Avoid Use of Inactive Verbs • Try to write questions that begin with “what,” • E.g. “what is the relationship…….,” and “why”. • Avoid using inactive verbs such as “do” at the beginning of your question. • Questions beginning with “do”, like questions that begin with “should”, can be answered by “yes,” “no”, “maybe,” or “I don’t know”,” and are stoppers. They elicit an opinion rather than some activity directed toward research. E.g.: •Do divers over speed? •Do drivers respond to traffic lights in the same way? Use Active Verbs • The first step in phrasing a research question is to use an active stem changing the question from an opinion question to an active question • Replace words such as “should” or “do” with words such as “what” or “why” Levels of Research Questions • When analyzing the level of the question, there are a couple of “indicators” to watch for that will help you decide if you are at the right level • Finding the appropriate level for your questions determines your subsequent course of action • Research questions fall into three levels First Level Research Questions • First level - little or no prior knowledge of the topic – The stem question is always “what is” or “what are”’ and the topic has a single concept – Asked in such a way that they lead to exploration and result in a complete description of the topic • If your topic has never been studied before, you begin at the first level. First-level questions are: – exploratory in nature – examine new areas of insufficient knowledge – provide a complete description of the topic • The most important characteristic of level I questions is that they are based on topics that have not been studied before and about which little information is available – They ask about one concept only – No reference to “relationships,” “causes,” or “effects” should be in Level I question Second Level Research Questions • Second level question - If your topic has already been described and you have found a description in research literature – focus on the relationships between two or more variables previously described but never before studied together. – At this level, you have considerably more knowledge about the topic than you did at the first level, however, enough is not yet known to predict the relationship between variables. • Build on the results of studies at the first level • When a topic has been thoroughly described, it is possible to identify measurable variables. The next step is to look for relationships between these variables. • At Level II questions: – Stem question asks, “What is the relationship?” – Topic contains two or more variables. – The answer to the question at the second level is determined by the significance of the relationship between the variables. • When you study two variables together, you need to have rationale to explain their proposed relationship. You must discuss the concepts behind the variables and propose that a relationship may exist between (or among) them. Variables in Second Level Research Questions • Each question must have a minimum of two variables – written in such a way that they both vary. • A question that asks “What is the relationship between drivers’ positive and negative attitudes toward traffic lights?” has only one variable, “drivers’ attitudes.” – Positive and negative are merely two categories of attitudes. When a Level II question is written properly, it will ask about the relationship between…(a)… and …(b)… Third Level Research Questions • Questions at the third level require considerable knowledge of the topic. • Test predictive hypotheses about the variables. • Knowledge required for the development of hypotheses is based on the results of second level studies; therefore, the action of all variables can be predicted. • Questions that lead to testing a cause-and-effect relationship between them are in Level III categories. • At Level III, the question asks “why” this relationship exists, and you must provide the answer, which always begins with “because...” and ends with an explanation from theory or prior research findings. Third Level Questions (cont.) • All Level III questions lead to experimental designs. The questions look like this: Stem Topic Why do pothole-size increase with traffic volume? Why does increased fiber in wheel-tire decrease tire-wear? • You must answer the initial “why” question before you can propose to test the exact relationship between your variable. • Each of these “why” question has two variables, and each question specifies that one variable either causes or influences the action of the other variable in a certain way. The study resulting from a level III question will test the theory. Summary • Move from big to small when defining your question • Define your research question using an active stem • Decide the level of your question • Choose appropriate variables to answer your question • Most importantly, talk to colleagues, exchange ideas, and refine questions in an iterative process.
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