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How to…write a good research question

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This paper, on writing research questions, is the first in a series that aims to support novice researchers within clinical education, particularly those undertaking their first qualitative study. Put simply, a research question is a question that a research project sets out to answer. Most research questions will lead to a project that aims to generate new insights, but the target audience and the methodology will vary widely. The term ‘evaluation question’ is used less commonly, but the same principles apply. The key difference is that evaluation questions are typically more focused on the immediate context: for example, the effectiveness of an educational intervention in a particular setting. Whether your ambition is for research or evaluation, we hope that you will find this paper helpful for designing your own educational projects. A research question is a question that a research project sets out to answer
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104104 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and The Association for the Study of Medical Education. THE CLINICAL TEACHER 2018; 15: 104–108
How to...
How to…write a good
research question
Karen Mattick
1
, Jenny Johnston
2
and Anne de la Croix
3,4
1
Centre for Research in Professional Learning , University of Exeter , Exeter , UK
2
School of Medicine , Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences , Queen s University Belfast ,
Belfast , Northern Ireland , UK
3
LEARN! Academy , Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam , Amsterdam , the Netherlands
4
VUmc School of Medical Sciences, Amsterdam , the Netherlands
SUMMARY
This paper, on writing research
questions, is the fi rst in a series
that aims to support novice
researchers within clinical educa-
tion, particularly those undertak-
ing their fi rst qualitative study.
Put simply, a research question
is a question that a research
project sets out to answer. Most
research questions will lead to a
project that aims to generate new
insights, but the target audi-
ence and the methodology will
vary widely. The term ‘evaluation
question’ is used less commonly,
but the same principles apply. The
key difference is that evaluation
questions are typically more fo-
cused on the immediate context:
for example, the effectiveness of
an educational intervention in a
particular setting. Whether your
ambition is for research or evalu-
ation, we hope that you will fi nd
this paper helpful for designing
your own educational projects.
A research
question is a
question that a
research project
sets out to
answer
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© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and The Association for the Study of Medical Education. THE CLINICAL TEACHER 2018; 15: 104–108 105
INTRODUCTION
Most clinical teachers will
undertake a research
project, evaluate their
education practice or prepare a
conference poster at some point
in their careers. Most clinical
teachers will also explore the
published literature on a topic
relevant to their practice: for
example, a teaching innovation,
assessment strategy or student
support approach. These activi-
ties can be enhanced by writing a
research question in order to
think clearly about what you are
doing and why; however, not all
clinical teachers have had
training in how to write a good
research question, and this is not
as straightforward as it may
seem. Writing questions for
qualitative research, in particular,
might be new for many health
professionals. This article aims to
share some tips and frameworks
that the authors (medical
education researchers who have
published quite extensively) have
found useful, which we hope will
support clinical teachers who are
novice researchers in the educa-
tion sphere, and perhaps provide
a helpful refresher for more
experienced researchers.
WHAT IS A GOOD
RESEARCH QUESTION?
A good question can make
people pause and see things in
a different way, or can motivate
them to learn more through
discussion, an internet search or
literature review. When a child
asks their parents why the sea
is blue, the parents may need to
consult an information resource
before providing a well- informed
answer! Thinking critically about
everyday taken- for- granted
assumptions or practice prob-
lems, to enable new potentially
transformative viewpoints to
be articulated (a process called
‘problematising’), is one of the
most useful ways of generat-
ing research questions. A good
research question will send the
researcher on a quest to identify
or collect data that can be ana-
lysed and interpreted, such that
it provides new insights.
So what are the features of a
good question? First and fore-
most, the question should focus
on an important topic. Ask
yourself what will happen if this
research is not done – does it
really matter? Who will benefi t
from it? Good questions are
often co- created with those who
may use or benefi t from the
ndings. Look at the priorities
identifi ed by journals, funding
bodies or priority- setting
exercises in the clinical educa-
tion fi eld to see what others
think are important questions.
1
Sometimes new data might
prompt a research question: from
the fi ndings of a national survey,
for example. Other research
questions are driven by a theory
or hypothesis about what is
happening in practice. It is not
uncommon for research questions
to start out by being quite ‘local
and particular’, focused on the
immediate educational context,
but they can often be developed
into questions with broader
relevance.
Good research questions are
usually quite narrow or specifi c,
but often do not start out that
way. You might start with a
general theme or idea for
research (e.g. motivation for
learning), which develops into a
more specifi c question over time
(e.g. how do medical school
graduates engage with e- learning
resources outside their working
hours?). Novices often ask very
broad questions, but these are
unlikely to be answered in a
short time frame and can lack
direction and impact.
2
After
developing a research question,
you will need to consider whether
it can be answered through the
existing published literature or
whether new data must be
collected. Reviewing the litera-
ture is only manageable if the
question has clear boundaries. In
research, we are often contribut-
ing a tiny step to the existing
knowledge, rather than making
huge leaps. Small contributions
are better than no changes at all.
So a long, specifi c question is
likely to be preferable to a short
vague question.
To illustrate these points
Table 1 provides some specifi c
examples, and in the next section
we discuss some key
considerations.
CONSIDERATIONS:
RELEVANCE, ORIGINALITY
AND RIGOUR
Here, we highlight some things
to think about as you develop
your research question, building
on the points raised above. These
analyses are not intended to be
undertaken in any specifi c order.
The considerations fall into three
main categories (Figure 1 ), which
can be thought of as broadly con-
cerning the relevance, originality
and rigour of the research ques-
tion, and which are interrelated
and partly inspired by the UK
Research Excellence Framework.
3
You may start with any one of
the categories and revisit each
one multiple times. In doing so,
you may change your research
question slightly or completely.
Don t be disheartened if you go
through many iterations; time
spent on this process is always
well invested.
Relevance
Begin by identifying and ar-
ticulating the important societal
or practice problem that you
wish to research. To consider
the signifi cance of the research
question for different audiences,
try articulating the problem in
multiple ways, perhaps working
with different stakeholders from
the clinical education fi eld to
do this (Box 1 ). Talk about your
project idea in lay terms and
observe people s reactions with
an open mind. The process will
require you to think clearly and
from different perspectives.
Ask yourself
what will
happen if this
research is not
done - does it
really matter?
Who will
benefi t from it?
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106 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and The Association for the Study of Medical Education. THE CLINICAL TEACHER 2018; 15: 104–108
Ensure that the
research ques-
tion will lead to
original work
that generates
new insights
Originality
Another key consideration is to
ensure that the research question
will lead to original work that
generates new insights and does
not duplicate previous research,
which can be determined through
a literature review. There are many
different approaches to literature
reviewing,
4
so you can tailor this
to the purpose. If you can fi nd an
existing research study or review
article on your topic of interest
that answers (or partially answers)
the question you are trying to de-
ne, then you may not need to do
the study you had fi rst envisaged.
This is good news, as your time
can now be spent extending that
work and contributing to knowl-
edge, rather than unintentionally
duplicating what is already known.
Research
question
Rigour: is the question aligned
with the methods? Do the
research tools generate
appropriate data to answer the
question?
Originality: what is
already known about
the topic? Which debate
does it add to?
Relevance: what is the
importance or relevance
of the topic for
stakeholders?
Figure 1 . Three interrelated elements of research question development
Table 1 . Examples of research questions in clinical education
Research question Source Our comments
How do people learn? Created by the authors Too broad! The question spans many disci-
plines (education, psychology, sociology,
anthropology) and the answer is likely to
depend upon the ‘people’ studied.
Do postgraduate trainees
like lectures? An interview
study.
Created by the authors Not aligned! The question demands a yes/
no answer, but the methodology will
provide words as data. The question also
focuses on learner satisfaction, but could
be developed to consider knowledge gain
or behaviour change.
How can we increase the
number of applications for
a fi xed number of medical
school places?
Created by the authors This question is only important if there
are insuffi cient high- quality applicants
to fi ll the places. Its importance could
be increased signifi cantly by focusing on
particular demographic groups who are
underrepresented at medical school.
What interactional struc-
tures are used in feedback
sequences during general
practice bedside teaching
encounters?
Rizan et al. (2014)
14
The importance of this research question for
clinical education is clear. This is a ques-
tion that is probably better suited to data
in the form of words.
How does cognitive empathy
specifi c to the doctor–
patient relationship, as
assessed in much of the
previous work, change
over the course of medical
school?
Smith et al. (2017)
15
This long, specifi c question explicitly builds
on previous work and is probably better
suited to quantitative data collection.
In PICO terms, the population repre-
sents medical students, the intervention
is a medical school, the comparison is
between students at the beginning and
end of medical school and the outcome is
cognitive empathy.
PICO: patient, intervention, control/comparison, outcome.
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© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and The Association for the Study of Medical Education. THE CLINICAL TEACHER 2018; 15: 104–108 107
Once you have identifi ed the prob-
lem that you wish to research and
know what research has already
been undertaken, you will be able
to articulate the gap in the lit-
erature that you wish to address.
Lingard s paper on ‘Problem, Gap,
Hook’, which suggests articulating
a current problem, highlighting
an important knowledge gap and
convincing the audience that this
gap is problematic, is a useful way
of thinking about this.
5
Rigour
Ensuring that the research
question and methods of data
collection and data analysis are
aligned is a key element of rigour.
Research questions may suggest a
particular type of answer. For ex-
ample, some questions demand a
yes or no answer, some require a
number or a ranking as an answer,
and some may be better answered
with data in the form of words .
It is worth noting that different
people may be drawn to particular
types of question: some favour
‘What’, and some favour ‘Why’ or
‘How’, and these preferences are
shaped by their knowledge and
prior experiences. Generally, ques-
tions focusing on experiences,
viewpoints, group processes and
personal development tend to
lend themselves better to qualita-
tive research.
6
Questions may also be shaped
by researchers’ preferred meth-
odological tools, which are
inevitably interlinked with the
way that they see the world:
7
for
example, whether they have a
qualitative or quantitative
orientation. Talk to fellow
researchers. What kind of study
design would they anticipate
from this question? What kinds of
theories and methodologies
might be useful in answering this
question? Even towards the end
of your research project, when
drawing conclusions, refer back
to the research question to
ensure the coherence of the
study.
TIPS FOR WRITING YOUR
RESEARCH QUESTION
When drafting your research
question, there are some useful
frameworks that you can use
to help you think clearly about
what you are doing and about
the components of your research
question. Readers might be
familiar with Kirkpatrick s model
for evaluating learning and the
expanded version described
by Barr et al., which consid-
ers different types of education
outcome that may be explored.
8,9
Much clinical education research
to date has focused on learner
satisfaction, but it is possible
to design research that consid-
ers knowledge gain, behaviour
change or patient outcomes.
Bloom s taxonomy is useful for
thinking about the descriptors
used in relation to educational
outcomes.
10
Readers might
also be familiar with the PICO
(patient, intervention, control/
comparison, outcome) frame-
work,
11
with SPIDER (sample,
phenomenon of interest, design,
evaluation, research type) pro-
viding a qualitative alternative.
12
The SPIDER framework can help
to spell out the key elements of
a question for qualitative work.
Once you have started your
research project, revisit the
research question regularly. Some
projects evolve and drift during
the study, and ultimately do not
answer the research question. It
is easy to lose sight of the
question in the midst of the
all- absorbing research process.
Different elements of research
need constant realignment with
each other and Agee reminds us
that this is critical to the shaping
of research studies, particularly
qualitative studies.
13
Keep the
research question foremost in
your mind throughout the
process.
CONCLUSION
A good research question takes
time to create, but time in-
vested in this process is always
worthwhile.
REFERENCES
1 . Dennis AA , Cleland JA , Johnston
P , Ker JS , Lough M , Rees CE .
Exploring stakeholders’ views of
medical education research priori-
ties: a national survey . Med Educ
2014 ; 48 ( 11 ): 1078 1091 .
2 . Morrison J . Developing research
questions in medical education:
the science and the art . Med Educ
2002 ; 36 ( 7 ): 596 597 .
3 . Anonymous . Research Excellence
Framework . Available at http://
www.ref.ac.uk/ . Accessed on 8
January 2018.
Questions may
also be shaped
by researchers’
preferred
methodological
tools
Box 1 . Examples of stakeholders in clinical education
Teachers and learners in health care disciplines
o undergraduate
o postgraduate
o continuing professional development
Patients and the public
o of all ages and demographic groups
o in hospital and community settings
o individually and through patient groups
Policy makers
Organisations
o universities
o hospitals
Health care systems
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108 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and The Association for the Study of Medical Education. THE CLINICAL TEACHER 2018; 15: 104–108
Keep the
research ques-
tion foremost
in your mind
throughout the
process
4 . Wong G . Literature reviews: who
is the audience? In: Cleland J ,
Durning SJ , eds. Researching Medical
Education . Chichester, UK : John
Wiley & Sons, Ltd ; 2015 : pp. 25 34 .
5 . Lingard L . Joining a conversa-
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13 December 2017.
9 . Barr H , Freeth D , Hammick M ,
Koppel I , Reeves S . Evaluating
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United Kingdom Review for Health
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The British Educational Research
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(CAIPE) ; 1999 .
10 . Bloom BS , Engelhart MD , Furst EJ ,
Hill WH , Krathwohl DR . Taxonomy
of educational objectives: The classifi -
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BMC Med Inform Decis Mak
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Beyond PICO: The SPIDER
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tive research questions: a
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431 447 .
14 . Rizan C , Elsey C , Lemon T , Grant
A , Monrouxe LV . Feedback in
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nographic study . Med Educ
2014 ; 48 ( 9 ): 902 920
.
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Corresponding author s contact details: Prof. Karen Mattick, Centre for Research in Professional Learning, University of Exeter, St Luke s
Campus, Heavitree Road, Exeter, EX1 2LU, UK. E-mail: k.l.mattick@exeter.ac.uk
Funding: None.
Confl ict of interest: All three authors teach on this topic to postgraduate students and supervise Masters and Doctoral-level project
students, giving feedback on these kinds of issues. KM is Senior Associate Editor for The Clinical Teacher .
Acknowledgements: We thank Esther Helmich, Aileen Barrett, Deirdre Bennett, Anu Kajamaa and Terese Stenfors for providing feed-
back on the draft manuscript. They, together with the authors, form a research network named the European Centre of Excellence in
Qualitative Study and Inquiry in Training and Education (EXQUISITE), led by Esther Helmich at the University of Groningen.
Ethical approval: No ethical approval was sought, as the work is based on secondary data and on our own experiences. No primary data
are presented.
doi: 10.1111/tct.12776
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... Good research questions are complex involving critical thinking and are relevant, focused, and feasible (Mattick et al., 2018;McCombes, 2019). The FINER criteria is a useful tool for writing good research questions (Cummings et al., 2013); FINER is an acronym for feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevance. ...
... To establish relevance of a topic or issue, Mattick et al. (2018) advise using the following questions as a guide: "What will happen if this research is not done -does it really matter?" and "Who will benefit from it?" (p. ...
... 105). Additional guidance for establishing relevance is gaining familiarity with current literature on the topic/ issue and journal/funding organization research priorities (Mattick et al., 2018;McCombes, 2019). Keeping abreast of the literature helps with identification of a gap, thus strengthening the relevance of the study. ...
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Context: Empathy is an essential aspect of clinical care, associated with improved patient satisfaction, increased adherence to treatment, and fewer malpractice complaints. Previous studies suggest that empathy declines during medical training. However, past research relied on a single narrowly operationalised, self-report measure of empathy. As empathy is a complex socio-emotional construct, it is critical to assess changes across its distinct components using multiple measures in order to better understand how it is influenced by medical training. Methods: In a longitudinal study, medical students completed a series of self-report and behavioural measures twice per year during the first 3 years of their study (2012-2015). These included the previously used Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), designed to assess empathy in the clinical context, the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE), designed to assess overall empathy and its main components, and behavioural measures of sensitivity to others' pain and understanding of others' emotions, both of which are important aspects of empathy. The employment of multiple measures allowed for a more complete assessment of medical students' empathy and related processes. Results: In reflection of findings in previous work, students' empathy assessed by the JSPE decreased over training. However, on the QCAE, aspects of students' empathy, specifically overall cognitive empathy and its subcomponent perspective taking, and the emotion contagion subcomponent of affective empathy improved, whereas the remaining subcomponents remained stable. During medical school, students also exhibited comparable growth in their understanding of others' emotions and increased sensitivity to others' pain. Conclusions: Changes in empathy during medical school cannot be simply characterised as representing an overall decline. Indeed, aspects of empathy thought to be valuable in positive physician-patient interactions improve during training. Overall, this study points to the importance of assessing the distinct components of empathy using multiple forms of measurement in order to better understand the mechanisms involved in empathy changes in medical practice.
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This chapter explores the range of review approaches and provides guidance on how to decide which one is best for your purpose. Literature reviews are undertaken for a range of different purposes. Examples of commonly used review approaches are used here to illustrate this variation. Furthermore, the type of documents that may be legitimately included in a literature review varies. Some will only include studies of a particular type, others published and unpublished documents. The chapter explains the importance of the audience's perspective in literature reviews. There are many different ‘brands’ or approaches to literature reviews, some of the more mainstream approaches are covered here. Cochrane reviews are probably one of the most widely recognised literature review approaches. Realist synthesis and meta-narrative reviews are two relatively newer literature review approaches compared to Cochrane and other related literature review approaches. Taking the perspective of who the audience(s) might be for a review is one way to address the issue of when to use a particular review approach. This perspective can also help researchers to decide how a review should be undertaken. Where consensus is high on the appropriate use of and processes within a review, working out what an audience expects is easier. Where there is less agreement, more time and effort will be needed to justify the choice of a particular review approach and how it will be carried out.
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