Monday, July 16, 2012

Writing Research Questions

William Badke's book Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog includes some very useful information.  Early in the book he discusses the importance of developing an interesting and a good research question.  Definitely, some questions are better than others, and, frankly, some are just bad-- they have very little promise at being successful in an academic setting.  Following is his summary comment:
In my experience, the best research questions are simple ones that still require a good deal of analysis to answer.  If you start with a highly complex question your analysis is going to have be that much more complex.  The ideal is to have a question so simple and clear that you can actually see the goal before you, in your mind's eye. and the path you need to take to get there.  Yet the answer must require some struggle to come to.  And it must be capable of leading you to provide concrete evidence to support it.  You use the evidence you gather as a means to discover the solution rather than as the solution itself.  (36)
Badke's appendix offers a list of ten research questions that he has qualified as good and bad.  He notes that a bad research question is one that requires a yes/no answer, or requires a simple discovery of a fact.  This is not a college research question, but a report.  He writes: "A research question is more than discovery of a fact.  It has to deal with an issue that can be analyzed in depth" (233).  Therefore, a question asking how long is the longest bridge is not as good as a question asking what kinds of materials would be needed to build the longest bridge.  Remember, does it ask for analysis?  If it does, then this is better than a research questions that only requires the discovery of a fact, or a report on a set of facts.  College should challenge students to think and evaluate, rather than just regurgitate information.

Another bad question may ask a question that demands a connection between two things or phenomenon that cannot be determined with available statistics, reports, or publications in general.  Badke uses this question to illustrate this point: "What effect does homelessness have on the price of beds in Canada?" (233).  Finding statistics or reports that would connect these two aspects of the question would be mighty difficult.
"First Business Inn Deluxe Double Room."  See
Other bad questions may be unfocused.  What has happened to __________ politician since the scandal that ruined their career?  What is going on with _____________ since she earned her billions?  The broad nature of these questions make them undesirable as research questions.  There could be hundreds of thousands of sources on a popular cultural figure, so how does the student know what to filter and what to reference in the paper?  Badke's suggestion for a better question goes like this: "Is Bill Gates' plan to give away a large portion of his wealth sufficiently well organized to ensure that the money achieves the goals he has set for it?" (234).  The student can envision a clear path to investigate and will understand when he/she has come close to answering it adequately.  The previously broad question would require a book with multiple chapters.

If the connections between two different occurrences can be seen, then this kind of question may be great for research.  Badke brings up the question of a country's Child Welfare Program, asking if the scrutiny in the media over the last few years has spurred new legislation.  A student could go and look at popular literature (newspapers and magazines) to determine whether increased publicity on this topic did in fact precede movements in state or national legislative bodies to change the law.
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Overly simplistic questions that call for a report and not an analysis are bad research questions.  For example: "What happened in Afghanistan during the last ten years?"  "What is going on with South American governments?"  Choose a particular aspect of the larger topic and ask a more focused question.  Sometimes it is better to ask "How?" and "Why?"  This requires some digging and searching.

One good question: "How could the looting of museums in Iraq in 2003 have been avoided?" (235).  Research would uncover how the lootings took place, which would open up the field for the researcher to choose some viable plan for preventing a similar occurrence from happening again.  Badke writes: "In hindsight, it should be possible to look at what happened and show what protections could have been devised to prevent the looting.  Considerable writing has been done on the issue, so there should be lots of information" (235).  In the end, students will want to be able to find lots of sources to back up their main points.  Being able to focus on the points within the sources that relate directly to their research question will save them time and yield a clearer argument.

Avoid research questions that ask for multiple points to be addressed.  Remember to be simple and avoid too much complexity, particularly if your paper is limited to six or eight pages in length.  If you as the writer are confused about all the points you are trying to make, then the reader may well be just as confused.
"Leaning, New style sount, stacked 3 high" by Oran Viriyincy on


William Badke said...

Thanks, Spencer. Very good exposition of the points I was making.

William Badke said...
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