Module 2: Formulating a Research Question and Searching for Sources

Formulating a Research Question

As noted in Module 1: Types of Reviews, conducting a “pre-search” is a crucial first step in devising the research question. A well-formulated research question informs the research process. It can focus your information needs (i.e. identify inclusion and exclusion criteria), help to identify key search concepts, and guide you in the direction of relevant resources.

Types of Research Questions

There are two general types of research questions: and .

Quantitative Research Questions

Types of quantitative questions can be categorized as explanatory (i.e., relationship-based), descriptive, or comparative.

  • Explanatory questions aim to discover cause-and-effect relationships by comparing two or more variables, individuals or groups based on differing outcomes.
  • Descriptive questions will often quantify a single variable but may include multiple variables  within a question. They typically ask for measurements, and can begin with: “how much”, “what percentage”, “how frequently”, or “how many”.
  • Comparative questions are designed to identify the “difference between” a dependent variable and two or more groups. These questions tend to begin with “what is the difference” or “what are the differences”.

Qualitative Research Questions

Qualitative questions aim to discover meaning or gain an understanding of a phenomenon. They ask questions that cannot be measured with specific numbers and statistics. Qualitative research questions often contain words like , “personal experience”, “understanding”, “meaning”, and “stories”.

A Comparison of Quantitative and Qualitative Questions

So how do quantitative and qualitative research questions differ when you are conducting a search? In Table 2.1 below, we provide some examples of research topics. Each topic can either be used for a quantitative or qualitative research question. For each question, the category of research question is clarified.

Table 2.1. Examples of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Questions
Topic Quantitative Research Questions Qualitative Research Questions
Housing insecurity for children Explanatory:

How does experiencing housing-insecurity in childhood impact a child’s relationships in adulthood?

Lived experience:

What are the lived experiences of children experiencing housing-insecurity while attending elementary School?

Nursing and workplace violence Descriptive:

What percentage of nurses experience violence in the workplace on night shifts?

Personal understanding:

How do nurses conceptualize their role in mitigating workplace violence?

Mental health of Canadian immigrants Comparative:

What are the differences in perceptions towards accessing mental health services between immigrants and their Canadian-born children?

Personal experience:

How do newly arrived Canadians experience seeking help for mental health concerns?


Key Takeaways

Regardless of the type of question being asked, a good research question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no (as demonstrated by the sample questions in Table 2.1).


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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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