person conducting the research wants to know. If the answers to the research question are not answers that are valuable to the audience, then the wrong question was asked. Thus, the research question needs to be relevant, and it needs to contribute to the existing body of knowledge so that the research itself is relevant in the broader scheme of the subject (Voss, 2003). The City University of New York (n.d.) also highlights two other keys to a good research question. A good research question should be specific. If the question is too broad, it will be difficult to research or it will fail to provide value to the field. The more narrow the question, the more focused will be the research. There is a process by which a focused research question can be formed. The broad subject matter will already be known. The next step is to define an area of interest within that field. If private research, this can be defined by the client. In academic research, this would be defined by the researcher perhaps in consultation with faculty if the researcher is a student. Then a more focused topic can be determined. Many researchers stop here, but they should not. The focused topic then can be distilled into a singular research question that covers one specific area. The final step is to ensure that the question is researchable. Whatever methodology is chosen, there should be some theoretical materials available as background. The concept of “researchable” also applies to practicalities — can the question be answered with the resources available to the researcher?
Once the research question is settled, a hypothesis needs to be developed. The hypothesis is developed in line with the research. Thus, at least some of the literature review should have been conducted by this point, so that the researcher has a sense of what the hypothesis might be. The first thing to remember is that the hypothesis is something that the research is going to test. Therefore — and this particularly applies to quantitative research — the hypothesis must consist of at least two variables, one dependent and the other independent. This is less important in other forms of research but the hypothesis should still be something that the researcher intends to test (eHow, 2011). The “if-then” form is one of the most common forms of hypothesis.
There are two main types of hypothesis, the null and the alternative. The null hypothesis directly relates to the question being tested — it is the expected answer to the question. If the question is answered in the affirmative, then the null hypothesis is confirmed. Many times, the research will also contain an alternative hypothesis. This is what the research will show if the null hypothesis is not proved. In some cases, the only thing the research can show is that the null hypothesis is not proved. However, there are cases where the research can be designed to show a more specific alternative hypothesis. The role of the null and alternative hypotheses in research is to generate a conclusion from the research. The findings in the research will be analyzed, and that analysis should lead to conclusion. The form the conclusion takes is either “Study X supports the null hypothesis” or “Study X supports the alternative hypothesis.” Thus, the hypotheses form the basis of the research’s conclusions.
The research question begins with a subject area, and is then refined through a multiple-step process to derive the research question. At the outset of the process, the researcher simply has an area of interest. At this point, a survey of the existing literature, in the form of a literature review or annotated bibliography is critical. This step in the process involves the researcher becoming familiar with all of the background research on the subject, and especially with the contemporary research on the subject. This is necessary so that when a research question is formed, it will be relevant and add to the body of knowledge. The researcher should, in the course of the literature review, be able to identify gaps in the current research or areas where the current research can be refined or built upon. If the researcher can clearly elucidate the value that a research question will add to the field, it will be because he or she is very familiar with the research in the area and knows what needs to be studied further (Voss, 2003). .
Finalizing the research question is therefore not as simple as simply narrowing the topic down further. It needs to be relevant to the current research, so the question must be creative enough that it is not viewed as repetitive. This is particularly important in peer-reviewed research, where a poorly-formulated question can stall the research before it starts, or worse yet result in a paper that is not accepted.
The research question and hypothesis are critical components of any research. They relate directly to the knowledge that the researcher is hoping to uncover, by providing a research framework and the basis for a conclusion. It is essential, then, that the question and null hypothesis both are clear. They must also be congruent. The null hypothesis — and alternative hypothesis must relate directly to the research question. Both the research question and the hypothesis should be based on the literature review. The lit review provides the researcher with the knowledge needed to formulate a strong, relevant and focused research question, and should also provide the knowledge with which to formulate a reasonable null hypothesis. Without these two key elements to the research, there is a high likelihood that the research will not be useful to the end audience.
CUNY. (no date). Formulating a research question. City University of New York. Retrieved October 17, 2011 from http://web.jjay.cuny.edu/~pzapf/classes/CRJ70000/Formulating%20the%20research%20question.htm
eHow. (2011). How to formulate a hypothesis using the scientific method. eHow. Retrieved October 17, 2011 from http://www.ehow.com/how_2052860_formulate-hypothesis-using-scientific-method.html
Voss, G. (2003). Formulating interesting research questions. Journal of the academy of marketing science. Vol. 31 (3) 356-359.
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