Monday, 22 June 2020

Starting to form the research question

If we have students who are struggling to form a research question, simplification may help us. When initially attempting to encapsulate our research question, Dawson tells us to ask ourselves the five Ws: what; why; who; where; and when (2002, p. 4).

We will consider what each of these questions mean to our project in turn. 

  1. What? "What is [our] research?" Dawson notes that we need to find the most specific answer to this question that we can, noting that one "of the hardest parts in the early stages is to be able to define [our] project" and that projects derail where researchers don't get specific enough. Aim to encapsulate the project "in one sentence only", and if we can't do that, it is likely that our "research topic is too broad, ill thought out or too obscure" (2002, p. 5).
  2. Why? We need to know why do we want to "do this research? What is its purpose?" We should have a sound reason why we have chosen our research topic; that we are interested in it (so we stay motivated); that we "have identified a gap in the research literature" that interests us; or we want "to find out if there is demand for what [we] are proposing. Is there the right amount of complexity in what we are setting out to do, to meet the requirements of our course? Will our 'why' sustain our interest throughout the course of the research project? (Dawson, 2002, p. 5).
  3. Who? "Who will be [our] participants?" Can we get in touch with our participants in the time that we have? Are our potential participants able to be contacted?  (Dawson, 2002, p. 6). Do we need to go through a third party? Are we likely to get permission from a third party? Would they be interested in our research? What groups do we have access to? 
  4. Where? "Where are [we] going to conduct [our] research [...] in geographical terms"? (Dawson, 2002, p. 6). Thinking through the layers of geographic, organisational, departmental, or team options will help us better scope our project. We also need to think about funding, and about access to interview or focus group locations, also considering "very carefully about whether [our] chosen topic and method might have an influence on personal safety" (Dawson, 2002, p. 7).
  5. When? "When are [we] going to do [our] research?" We need to think carefully about our time constraints, and our participant time constraints. Dawson advises that she has "found some students present a well-written research proposal which, in practical terms, will not work because the participants will be unavailable during the proposed data collection stage" (2002, p. 8).

Having thought through the five Ws, we should then be able to summarise our research project into a sentence or two (see "What" above). We should share those sentences with a few people we trust, to see if they can understand what our project is setting out to answer. "If they don’t [understand], ask them to explain their confusion, revise your statement and take it back to them" and try again (Dawson, 2002, p. 8). Think of this as a test of concept. 

Dawson finishes this section off with "I can’t overemphasise the importance of this stage of the research process. If [we] get it right now, [we] will find that the rest of [our] work should flow smoothly. However, if [we] get it wrong, [our] problems could well escalate" (2002, p. 8).

Very good advice, and a reasonably simple process to follow.


  • Reference: Dawson, C. (2002). Practical Research Methods: A user-friendly guide to mastering research. HowToBooks. 

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