Research Dissemination – Research Questions

What is a research question?

In essence, a research question is a statement that identifies a phenomenon to be studied. Although the research question can take many forms, it often seeks to investigate the relationship between variables. For example, how Learning Management System (LMS) use is related to academic performance.

How can I create a strong research question?

To create a strong research question, you should have a reasonable understanding of the field you will be researching in, as well as a robust understanding of completed research in your topic area. In the first case, reasonableness is determined by your research project and your position/role. For example, a graduate thesis requires comprehensive understanding of the field, as would be expected of a Masters or PhD level student who is educated in that field. By contrast, an undergraduate paper typically requires only superficial to moderate familiarity of a field, depending on the year and specialization of the student. In the second case, all students conducting research are expected to provide evidence of a robust understanding of completed research in their chosen topic area. That said, the expectations for breadth and depth do vary according to research requirements and level, as with field knowledge expectations.

When your research is concluded, you should be able to answer questions such as:

  • Is my proposed topic area an important area of research in the field?
    • If so, has it been adequately researched already?
    • If not, what has prevented it from being researched? (In some cases, there are ethical, financial, access, or other reasons at play that could thwart your efforts as well.)
  • Are there other important areas of the field that have research gaps?
    • If so, are they areas I am interested in researching?
      • Note: this is a particularly critical question to answer for research with a long time horizon (for example, theses) as maintaining self-motivation on these projects is difficult without the complication of disinterest/apathy.
    • If not, dig deeper into the field research – you probably don’t know the field well enough yet to detect the gaps.

Once you have crafted your research question, you are ready to draft your hypothesis; your predictions on the relationship between the variables. I will discuss hypothesis formulation, as well as the critical distinction between correlation and causation, in an upcoming post.

Research

The aim of research is to discover and/or interpret behaviour in an attempt to “explain, predict, and control events” (Ary, Jacobs, and Sorensen, 2010, p.38). Research generates many valuable outcomes: it helps us to produce new knowledge; enables us to predict whether our actions are likely to result in successful outcomes; leads to the development of future thought leaders; helps protect researchers from inappropriate measurement requirements driven by political pressure; and links scholar communities (Gravey, 2005). In an era dubbed by many pundits as “post-truth”, this last outcome may be the most valuable of all, allowing the public to have an avenue for seeking evidence, rather than continually questioning whether they are being swept up in interest-driven claims and research.

Primary and Secondary Research

Primary research involves the collection of new information or data, typically in an attempt to answer a new research question. Common methods include questionnaires/surveys, focus groups, interviews, observation, and experiments. As primary research requires the researcher to actively collect information or data, it is sometimes referred to as “field research”. By contrast, secondary research involves considering the findings of completed research (primary and/or secondary) and summarizing or synthesizing it. In some cases, this aggregate view can result in new insight. Common secondary sources include journal articles, competitor information, and scientific research, though information from any credible source can be included. As secondary research does not require the researcher to collect new information, it is sometimes referred to as “desk research”. Whether a primary or secondary approach is most appropriate for your research is best decided after an analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

There are several benefits and drawbacks to both primary and secondary research from the researcher’s perspective. In the case of primary research, there are two key benefits: the research can be tailored to the specific research question; and quality is entirely controlled by the researcher, from design through construction. The primary research process is a time consuming one that is often costly to undertake, which are the two key drawbacks of this approach. By contrast, secondary research has the benefits of typically being inexpensive and relatively quick. However, secondary research has the disadvantage of requiring that the researcher analyze and integrate information/data that was not collected for reasons related to the current research question or objectives, which can be challenging. To complicate matters, the secondary sources that more closely align with the research question(s) can be old and therefore less credible. Ultimately, it is the nature of your research problem or question that dictates the appropriate research approach.

Selection of Primary or Secondary Research

Researchers need to consider when it is appropriate to invest time and money in primary research versus simply being a consumer of secondary research. Many types of research projects benefit from primary research, including cases where: the research question(s) is novel and there is little to no existing research on the topic (i.e. customized findings are required); the research is focused on a select individual or group of individuals (Purdue, 2017); or the research is intended to confirm or refute previous research findings (e.g. attempts to generalize research findings) (Purdue, 2017). By contrast, secondary research is appropriate in cases where: the research question(s) at hand can be adequately addressed with existing research; existing research can answer your research question while a single study could not; or there are cost, resource, or time constraints that preclude the undertaking of primary research.

Conclusion

Research is a critical activity which helps us produce new knowledge; predict outcomes; develop thought leaders; protect against political pressure; and combat interest-driven claims and research (Gravey, 2005). The latter being arguably the most important feature of all, as we try to operate effectively in a “post-fact” era. Given the importance of research, it is critical to continue to seek out new information to add to our body of knowledge (primary research), while also adding to our understanding of existing research through summary and synthesis (secondary research).

References

Ari, Donald, Lucy Cheser Jacobs, and Chris Sorensen. (2010). Introduction to Research in Education. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 8th ed.

Garvey, Dan. (2005). The Importance of Research and Evaluation. Journal of Experiential Education, 28, 3, 290-293.

Purdue. (2017). What is Primary Research and How do I get Started? Retrieved July 27, 2017. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/owlprint/559/