How to Write a Hypothesis or Research Question

Learning how to write a research question or hypothesis is the start to any thesis, dissertation, or research paper. It is also one of the most important sections of a research proposal. A good research question not only clarifies the writing in your study; it provides your readers with a clear focus and facilitates their understanding of your research topic, purpose, scope, and limitations.

What Is A Good Research Question?

Listed below are the important characteristics of a good research question:

The research question should be specific and focused 

Research questions that are too broad are not suitable to be addressed in a single study. One reason for this can be if there are many factors or variables to consider. In addition, a sample data set that is too large or an experimental timeline that is too long may suggest that the research question is not focused enough.

A specific research question means that the collective data and observations come together to either confirm or deny the chosen hypothesis in a clear manner. If a research question is too vague, then the data might end up creating an alternate research problem and hypothesis that you haven’t addressed in your Introduction section.

The research question should be based on the literature 

An effective research question should be answerable and verifiable based on prior research. An effective scientific study will always fall within the context of a wider academic consensus. This means that conspiracy or fringe theories are not good research paper topics.

Instead, a good research question must extend, examine, and verify the context of your research field. It should fit naturally within the literature and be searchable by other research authors.

References to the literature can be in different citation format styles and must be properly formatted according to the guidelines set forth by the publishing journal, university, or academic institution. This includes in-text parenthetical citations as well as the Reference section

Wordvice provides several sources of information and tools related to citations and references:

The research question should be realistic in time, scope, and budget

There are two main constraints to the research process: timeframe and budget.

A proper research question will include study or experimental procedures that can be executed within a feasible time frame, typically by a graduate doctoral or master’s student or lab technician. Research that requires future technology, expensive resources, or follow-up procedures is problematic.

A researcher’s budget is also a major constraint to performing timely research. Research at many large universities or institutions is publicly funded and is thus accountable to funding restrictions. 

The research question should be in-depth

Research papers, dissertations and theses, and academic journal articles are usually dozens if not hundreds of pages in length.

A good research question or thesis statement must be sufficiently complex to warrant such a length, as it must stand up to the scrutiny of peer-review and be reproducible by other scientists and researchers.

Types of Research Questions

Qualitative and quantitative research are the two major types of research, and it is essential to develop research questions for each type of study. 

Quantitative Research Questions

Quantitative research questions are specific. A typical research question involves the population to be studied, dependent and independent variables, and the research design.

In addition, quantitative research questions connect the research question and the research design. In addition, it is not possible to answer these questions definitively with a “yes” or “no” response. For example, scientific fields such as biology, physics, and chemistry often deal with “states,” in which different quantities, amounts, or velocities drastically alter the relevance of the research.

As a consequence, quantitative research questions do not contain qualitative, categorical, or ordinal qualifiers such as “is,” “are,” “does,” or “does not.”

Here are three categories of quantitative research questions:

  • Descriptive research questions attempt to describe the behavior of a population in regard to one or more variables or describe characteristics of those variables that will be measured. These questions are usually “What?” questions.
  • Comparative research questions seek to discover differences between groups within the context of an outcome variable. These questions can be causal as well. Researchers may compare groups in which certain variables are present with groups in which they are not.
  • Relationship research questions are designed to elucidate and describe trends and interactions among variables. These questions include the dependent and independent variables and use words such as “association” or “trends.”

Qualitative Research Questions

In quantitative research, research questions have the potential to relate to broad research areas as well as more specific areas of study. Qualitative research questions are less directional, more flexible, and adaptable compared with their quantitative counterparts. Thus, studies based on these questions tend to focus on “discovering,” “explaining,” “elucidating,” and “exploring.”

Qualitative research can be categorized as follows:

  • Contextual research questions attempt to identify and describe existing conditions.
  • Descriptive research questions attempt to describe a phenomenon.
  • Evaluation research questions assess the effectiveness of existing methods, protocols, theories, or procedures.
  • Explanatory research questions examine a phenomenon or analyze the reasons or relationships between subjects or phenomena.
  • Exploratory research questions focus on the unknown aspects of a particular topic.

Quantitative and Qualitative Research Questions

Research Question TypeQuestion Formulation
Descriptive research questionWhat are the characteristics of ATP synthase?
Comparative research questionHow does human growth hormone mimic the action of testosterone?
Correlational research questionWhat is the relationship between baldness and age?
Exploratory research questionIs it possible that VEGF has an effect in plant photosynthesis?
Explanatory research questionWhat is the cause of increased violence among young adults?
Evaluation research questionWhat is the efficacy of using toothpaste to heal mosquito bites?

Examples of Good and Bad Research Questions

Below are some good (and not-so-good) examples of research questions that researchers can use to guide them in crafting their own research question.

Example 1

Vague Research QuestionHow are children affected by exposure to social media?
Specific Research QuestionWhat is the effect of Instagram Likes on the self-esteem of young children under the age of 12?

The first research question is too vague in both its independent and dependent variables. There is no specific information on what “exposure” means. Does this refer to comments, likes, engagement, or just how much time is spent on the social media platform?

Second, there is no useful information on what exactly “affected” means. Does the subject’s behavior change in some measurable way? Or does this term refer to another factor such as the user’s emotions?

Example 2

Overly Simplistic Research QuestionHas there been an increase in bullying in the US over the past 10 years?
Focused Research QuestionWhat has been the effect of after-school and community programs on student disciplinary actions among elementary students?

In this research question, the first example is too simple and not sufficiently complex, making it difficult to assess whether the study answered the question. The author could really only answer this question with a simple “yes” or “no.” Further, the presence of data would not help answer this question more deeply, which is a sure sign of a poorly constructed research topic.

The second research question is specific, complex, and empirically verifiable. One can measure program effectiveness based on metrics such as attendance or grades. Further, “bullying” is made into an empirical, quantitative measurement in the form of recorded disciplinary actions.

Steps to Writing a Good Research Question

Good research questions are relevant, focused, and meaningful. It can be difficult to come up with a good research question, but there are a few steps you can follow to make it a bit easier.

1. Start with an interesting and relevant topic

Choose a research topic that is interesting but also relevant and aligned with your own country’s culture or your university’s capabilities. Popular academic topics include healthcare and medical-related research. However, if you are attending an engineering school or humanities program, you should obviously choose a research question that pertains to your specific study and major.

Below is an embedded graph of the most popular research fields of study based on publication output according to region. As you can see, healthcare and the basic sciences receive the most funding and earn the highest number of publications. 

2. Do preliminary research  

You can begin doing preliminary research once you have chosen a research topic. Two objectives should be accomplished during this first phase of research. First, you should undertake a preliminary review of related literature to discover issues that scholars and peers are currently discussing. With this method, you show that you are informed about the latest developments in the field.

Secondly, you can identify knowledge gaps or limitations in your topic by conducting a preliminary literature review. It is possible to later use these gaps to focus your research question after a certain amount of fine-tuning.

3. Narrow your research to determine specific research questions

You can focus on a more specific area of study once you have a good handle on the topic you want to explore. Focusing on recent literature or knowledge gaps is one good option. 

By identifying limitations in literature and overlooking areas of study, a research question can be constructed. The same is true for choosing research questions that extend or complement existing literature.

4. Evaluate your research question

Make sure you evaluate the research question by asking the following questions:

Is my research question clear?

The resulting data and observations that your study produces should be clear. For quantitative studies, data must be empirical and measurable. For qualitative, the observations should be clearly delineable across categories.

Is my research question focused and specific?

A strong research question should be specific enough that your methodology or testing procedure produces an objective result, not one left to subjective interpretation. Open-ended research questions or those relating to general topics can create ambiguous connections between the results and the aims of the study. 

Is my research question sufficiently complex?

The result of your research should be consequential and substantial (and fall sufficiently within the context of your field) to warrant an academic study. Simply reinforcing or supporting a scientific consensus is superfluous and will likely not be well received by most journal editors.  

reverse triangle chart, how to write a research question

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