If you are going to conduct research, it is essential to formulate the right research question. The purpose of the research and the research question indicates what the setup of the research will contain. A good research question ensures that you have the correct information to actually work at the end of the research. There are five steps to formulating the right research question:

Step 1: Why research?

The first step in deciding on a proper research question is to answer the question, "why are you going to research, evaluate, or monitor? Answering these questions will give you an idea of the type of research question you will ask, what information you need, and which answers you need. Do you want to improve a project, or do you want to justify your project? With both goals, you're going to be evaluating, but the answers you wish to obtain afterward are very different—improvements versus demonstrated effects.

Step 2: What information do you need?

Based on your goal (Step 1), you can determine what information you need to meet this goal. What do you need to know to meet your goal? Do you want to improve goal attainment? If so, you need information in the form of points for improvement (what is going well and what could be improved?) Is the goal to legitimize your project for funders? Then you need information in the form of the impact of the project. Do you want better alignment with the target group, and is this the goal of your research? Then you need information in the form of characteristics, wishes, and needs of the target group. Always ask yourself the question: what am I going to do with this information? This will enable you to set priorities.

Step 3: Formulating a research question

Based on your research goal and the accurate description of your information needs, you can formulate your research questions. Formulate these questions as precisely as possible. When preparing the questions, remember that you or a researcher will soon be answering them. So will you achieve your research goal, and can you take follow-up action if you get answers to these questions?

Step 4: Preconditions

Various preconditions can be linked to the research. It is essential to gain insight into this in the phase of formulating the research question. Preconditions you need to consider include time, budget, availability of specific data, and so on.

Step 5: What will the final result look like?

Research results can be delivered in a variety of forms. <LINK to blog>Digitally, physically, a report, a fact sheet, a book, a video, an article, a discussion session, a presentation, a website, a PowerPoint presentation, an infographic, an animation, a magazine, a flyer, to name a few. And what is communicated therein? Impacts, arguments, or areas for improvement. Make a representation of what you would like to get at the end of the research and whether you can use it to take your intended action, convince others, improve policies or activities or make a decision.

A questionnaire is used as a measuring tool to answer your research questions. It is essential that you can use the results of the questionnaire. The quality of the questionnaire determines the quality of the data collected. It is therefore important to carefully formulate the survey questions. Here are a few tips and rules of thumb to help you formulate well-structured questions:

  1. Keep the questions simple. Don't use complex language, and consider your audience in your choice of words. For example, "What do you prefer to do in your free time?" is better than "How do you prefer to relax?
  2. Provide an unambiguous interpretation. 'I am satisfied with the quality of the exhibition' is an example of how not to do it. What is quality? The type of artwork, interactive elements, crowds, venue, the light?
  3. Formulate the question as precisely as possible. Refer to place and time and mention numbers. Try to delineate questions such as "Have you recently..." to a specific period, for example, "Have you in the past six months...".
  4. Avoid vague wording and avoid terms like ‘often’ and ‘sometimes’, also in the answer categories. Everyone interprets often and sometimes differently, so it is better to ask for a specific number of times.
  5. Avoid duplicate questions. No 'and' or 'or' in the questions. A question like "What did you think of the performance and the actors?" cannot be answered with one answer if the audience thought the performance was a little off, but the actors were excellent.
  6. Do not formulate (double) denials in the question. A negation in the question is confusing. For example, 'I am not dissatisfied with what I have seen' or 'I don't like to visit a museum.'
  7. Ask short questions.
  8. Be careful with examples in the question and suggestive questions. Chances are that the respondent may only think of these examples. This can happen with a question like 'How often do you undertake a cultural activity such as a visit to a museum or a play.' The respondent will be inclined to think that a visit to a festival or a dance performance is not part of the equation.
  9. Make sure the question measures up: The question should answer the research question. If you want to know if an exhibition inspired someone, do not ask how long they stayed. It is possible that the length of stay was longer or shorter because the respondent had to wait or had to leave earlier and had no choice.
  10. The answer categories to the questions should be mutually exclusive, and it should be clear to the respondents which answer to tick/indicate.
  11. Provide the same direction in the response order for scale questions. If at one point you are asked to rate something on a scale from totally disagree to totally agree (increasingly positive) and a few questions later on a scale from very satisfied to very dissatisfied (increasingly negative), there is a chance that people will fill this out incorrectly.
  12. For scale questions, try to keep the scale the same for each question. So do not use a scale of 1 to 5 for one question and a scale of 1 to 7 for another. This also makes it easier to analyze.
  13. See which scale fits best. A rating scale of 1 to 10 offers a lot of variation but is also more challenging to interpret (for some, a 10 is good, others think a 10 is perfect and therefore don't give it easily). A 2 (good/bad) or 3-point scale (good, average, bad) offers minimal variation and makes it harder to answer a question if it is an opinion (opinions are typically nuanced). An even scale causes a respondent to have to choose; with an odd scale, you offer the opportunity to sit safely in the middle.
  14. Also, provide the option of a reasoned non-answer, for instance, by creating an answer option like not applicable or don't know/no opinion.

It is not always necessary to speak to everyone to get a representative picture. Especially with large numbers, such as the voting behavior of all Dutch citizens, a representative sample is drawn. A representative sample contains a sufficient number of respondents. Be aware of drop-outs; not everyone in the selection will cooperate with your survey, and all subgroups should be represented, men-women, young-old, ...

Two methods

You can draw your sample from a database of addresses (and background characteristics), such as ticket ordering service (theater) or a purchased address file. You can also ask people directly for your visit, for instance, at the entrance/exit of a museum/theatre. In this case, you determine in an objective way who is asked, for example, by asking every 5th person.

Three steps

  1. To ensure that your sample is large enough, you first need to know the minimum number of people who should participate in your study. This depends on the size of your research population, the reliability you are aiming for, and the margin of error you are willing to accept. Calculating your required sample size is done with a sample calculator.
  2. Next, you need to assess the likelihood of people cooperating with your research. People on the street are less likely to cooperate with your research than if they have an affinity with the subject (e.g., the theater they frequent) or if the questionnaire is done in a classroom setting. Based on this, you will determine how many people you should ask.
  3. Then you're going to see if you have any subgroups in your research population. You can take this into account when drawing the sample or check and correct it afterward. If you take this into account beforehand, you will draw a selective sample. Consider which subgroups you want to take into account and how large these groups are. This is especially easy if you have a database with addresses and characteristics. But also, if you approach respondents directly (e.g., at the entrance of the museum), you can take this into account (only ask men or mjk holders).

Afterward, when you check for proper representation of the subgroups, you draw an a-selective sample. With the completed questionnaires, you're going to check that all subgroups are equally represented.

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Claudia's heart is in research. With her passion, she enjoys enthusing others about research. She enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience. Claudia works and lives in the Netherlands, where she has been helping students and beginning researchers with research for years. Through blogs, but also with e-books, e-courses, and coaching. The first blogs are now translated into English to help more students and beginning researchers.
© 2022 Claudia de Graauw. All rights reserved.
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