Module 2: Formulating a Research Question and Searching for Sources

Formulas for Constructing Research Questions


Using a formula is another way to construct a research question and is recommended if you are conducting a systematic review. There are various formulas you can use to craft your question, see Table 2.2 below.

Formula Components Within the Formula Example
  • Population/Problem
  • Intervention/Exposure
  • Comparator
  • Outcome
  • Time Period/Type of Study

Note: the time period and type of study are optional

P: Patients who have undergone knee surgery

I: Post-operative infection

C: Patients without post-operative infection

O: Duration of recovery

  • Population/Problem
  • Situation
P: New immigrants

S: Accessing mental Health Care

  • Population
  • Intervention
  • Effect / Outcome
P: Children experiencing homelessness

I: Breakfast program at school

E: Academic performance

  • Population/Problem
  • Exposure
  • Outcomes/Themes
P: Health professionals

E: Caring for patients with Dementia

O: Attitudes

  • Population
  • Concept
  • Context
P: Pediatric patients with sleep disturbance

C: Quality of life

C: After tonsillectomy surgery

  • Setting
  • Perspective
  • Intervention
  • Comparison
  • Evaluation
S: Pediatric hospital rooms

P: Pediatric patients

I: Therapy dog visits

C: No therapy dog visits

E: Reduced anxiety

  • Sample
  • Phenomena of Interest
  • Design
  • Evaluation
  • Research type
S: Young parents

P of I: Early Literacy programs

D: Survey

E: Experiences

R: Qualitative

These frameworks aid in identifying the important parts (i.e., concepts) that can be used in formulating a research question. Below are two examples using the PS and PEO frameworks.


Can you think of a research question using these identified PS concepts?

Population/Problem: Family members’ of dying loved ones

Situation: Placing them in palliative care


Can you think of a research question using these identified PEO concepts?

Population/Problem: Caregivers of family members in palliative care

Exposure: Psycho-educational group intervention

Outcomes/Themes: Improved quality of life

Is My Question Too Narrow or Too Broad?

When trying to settle on a research question, ensure you are choosing something of interest, but not so narrow that you are unlikely to uncover any information, but not too broad so that you are overwhelmed with content and don’t know where to start. Below are examples of too broad and too narrow questions and an explanation to help understand why.


Why is this example too broad a question?

“A systematic review of the literature on palliative care interventions.”


Why is this example too narrow a question?

“Effectiveness of early reading intervention programs for children aged 5-7 in the private school system in East Toronto.”

A pre-search will assist you with this step. If you need a refresher on conducting a pre-search, see Module 1: Types of Reviews. Once you have a good understanding of the existing literature, you will be able to confidently formulate your research question.

Key Takeaways

Keep in mind that your question may change over time as you delve deeper into the literature. This is a normal course of events. You are still in the outline stage! Part of the process is refining and leading to sharper focus as you learn. For guidance on developing the research question see the further reading section.


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Advanced Research Skills: Conducting Literature and Systematic Reviews Copyright © 2021 by Kelly Dermody; Cecile Farnum; Daniel Jakubek; Jo-Anne Petropoulos; Jane Schmidt; and Reece Steinberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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