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The research question

Translating your initial ideas into a feasible educational research project is an iterative process. Consideration of ethical issues is essential and we will look at these in the next section. Here, we look briefly at some of the other activities that need to be carried out before the actual research begins.

Bordage and Dawson (2003) emphasise that ‘the single most important component of a study is the research question. It is the keystone of the entire exercise’ (p. 378). Defining the aims of your study clearly will determine all other aspects of the design. This involves selecting an appropriate topic and defining a timely and appropriate research question. In the same way that clearly defining learning outcomes or objectives helps us to plan learning and teaching activities, defining your research question or project aims provides a clear focus for the whole research process.

Bordage and Dawson pose nine questions that should be asked during this stage.

  1. What topic (idea) of study are you interested in?
  2. What has already been done in this area (the literature)?
  3. What major outcome(s) (dependent variable) are you interested in?
  4. What intervention (independent variable) are you interested in?
  5. Are you looking for differences or a relationship (association)?
  6. To what group (population) do you wish to apply your results?
  7. What is your specific research question?
  8. What answer to your question do you expect to find (the research hypothesis)?
  9. Why is this question important today (relevance)?


Getting the research question right for what we want to do is the most important step in research. Developing the research question takes time and the following is one way to tackle it.

  • Use different ways of generating ideas, such as brainstorming, mind mapping, discussions, reading around the topic and asking different levels of question that might be addressed. Consider the answers these questions may elicit, and after each one ask: ‘Does it matter?’


For example, you are interested to find out how many stations need to be in an OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examination) so that it is reliable. You read around and find that some writers suggest that you need more than 12 stations, whereas another very recent paper suggests good reliability can be achieved with eight stations. So your question might be ‘is an eight station OSCE a reliable way to assess first-year nursing students’ clinical skills?’ (here, as the evidence seems conflicting). You might decide to design and run an eight station OSCE as a formative assessment so that if it proves less reliable than you would like it won’t affect students’ grades but they will still have practice. You might decide to run this three times for half the group and compare the results with those from your usual 12 station formative OSCE run for the other half of the group.

  • When you have a question you are happy with and that will produce answers you want to know, ask what it would take in terms of resources (time, money, skills, etc.) to answer the question and whether it is feasible. If it’s not, move down to the next level and develop an appropriate question there.


You might not have enough resources for two sets of exams and decide to just run the OSCE. Or you might decide to run the eight station OSCE embedded as the first part of the 12 station OSCE for the same group of students. You could then look at the results of the eight stations that would comprise the new shorter examination compared to those of the 12 stations.

  • When you feel there is a research question that will produce answers that matter and which it will be possible to achieve within resources, the researchers need to obtain feedback on the question from other people involved.


You need to make sure that your research contributes to educational knowledge, even if this is in a small way or for local/organisational consumption only, rather than replicating work that has already been done. Because the underpinning ethos behind educational research is that every ‘case’, context and all ‘actors’ involved are different, much educational research aims to produce knowledge and understanding that might be transferable to other contexts rather than (in the case of, say, clinical trials) generalisable.

Huth (1982), cited in Parsell and Bligh (1999), suggests this means that you need to create new ideas with a new message, a message new to a particular audience or a message that expands on a previous idea. Unless you are very familiar with the literature relevant to your research, you will need to carry out a background search before writing the research proposal, especially if you are applying for funding. This will indicate to the reader that you are familiar with the research area; it will also help you to clarify exactly where your research fits into the broader scheme of things and give you ideas about the focus of the research (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 See Ringsted, Hodges and Scherpbier. The Research Compass. An overview model of approaches to research in medical education. Medical Teacher 2011; 33: 695-709.

Examples of healthcare education research topics include ward-based or clinic teaching encounters, learner–patient interaction, professionalism and the hidden curriculum, the development of students’ and educators’ identities, and the utility of simulation learning. 

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