Form 1

The Questions Formation Stage: 

Research Area, Topic, Questions, Purpose and Key Terms

What is your research area?

What is your research topic? 

What do you see as the purpose of your research? 

What is your General Research Question?

What are your Specific Research Question(s)?

Definitions of key terms used above


Research area 

Is the most general statement of where your intended research is located. Example: Teddy Bears in Canada

Research topic

Is a much more specific statement of your intended research, a narrowly defined sub-set of the research area.

Here’s a research topic example: Factors involved in fur loss of 2 to 3 year old teddy bears in Newfoundland

You may discover that you are interested in several research topics within your defined research area.  But you will need to pick just one and focus on it. If you have more than one research topic, for example, you are interested in types of stitching techniques in late 20th Century Canadian teddy bears as well, comparative rate of limb loss between Canadian and American teddy bears, you will need a General Research Question for each of these topics.  Your multiple interests can quickly create a mess. In effect you’ll be spawning two or three research proposals! To avoid the common problem of being overly ambitious and trying to do too much that you settle on a single, well-delineated Research Topic and one General Research Question that coincides with this topic. You can shelve the other topics for future consideration.  Being as focused as possible is the key here.

Purpose of your research

Why do you want to do this research?  What do you hope to achieve by doing this research?  Is there a problem you are trying to solve?  What are your goals or goal? The statement of purpose should provide context and correspond logically to your research questions.

General Research Question

So now that you have decided on a single research topic: Factors involved in fur loss of 2-3 year old teddy bears in Newfoundland, you can start to think about the General Research Question.  You might consider something like this:

Why does fur loss occur in 2 to 3 year old teddy bears?

The general research question ties in logically with your research purpose.  Alternatively you could use a hypothesis statement.

When would you use a hypothesis instead of a research question?  The answer: When you can predict in advance what you are likely to discover and if the basis of your prediction is informed by a set of propositions or theory from which the hypothesis is linked.  So when you are testing your hypothesis you are, in effect, proving or disproving the theory or set of propositions.  The place of theory in your proposed research, for example, as something to be verified or generated, is usually best discussed in a Conceptual Framework section, along with any hypotheses you want to propose.

Specific Research Question(s)?

Make sure you are not asking another general research question here.  A specific research question or questions should be more precise than the general research question. Specific research questions should explore aspects of the general research question and should be related to it in a decreasing level of hierarchical abstraction (see below).

Specific research questions are less general and abstract than general ones and attention should be given to their answerability. Specific research questions, in other words, need to be expressed in such a way that it is obvious what data are going to be needed to answer it.

Given that our General Research Question is:

Why does fur loss occur in 2 to 3 year old teddy bears? A good set of specific research questions might be:

         a. Does TB fur loss increase with rate of childhood use?

         b. Does TB fur loss differ according to the ratio of cotton to rayon? 

         c. Does TB fur loss differ among countries of manufacture?

Some examples of bad specific research questions in this case might be:

         d. Should fur loss occur in TBs?

         e. What kind of stitching is used in late 20th Century teddy bears?

          f. Why do children like teddy bears?

One can see from ‘e’ above that this is not really a question that can be clearly and scientifically answered.  It is not clear what data are needed to answer it. The question is not a research question, at all, but a statement of value.  Who is to say if something ‘should’ happen?  One basic rule is to avoid using the word ‘should’ in your research questions. Specific Research Questions ‘e’ and ‘f’ are empirically answerable but they do not have a relation of descending abstraction from the General Research Question. They take us in an entirely different research direction unrelated to the General Research Question. While they might be interesting and pressing questions in Teddy Bear Studies, as Specific Research Questions, they are not appropriate here. Neither ‘d’ nor ‘e’ or ‘f’ is going to set the research process off on a straight path.  Left unchecked, such inconsistencies at this early stage will create massive conceptual, developmental and organization problems in writing the proposal; and any hidden chaos in a faulty research design will multiply exponentially in the research itself.

If you are confident and fairly certain that TB fur loss is a result from the ‘rate of childhood use/wear and tear’ (still really only a theory that needs to be verified), you may want to form a hypothesis which you can test with statistical and/or other empirical methods:

Example Hypothesis: TB hair loss increases with the rate of childhood use.

Here you have what appear to be two easy-to-measure variables that you can correlate.  If you find the hypothesis to be true, then you prove your theory.

Definitions of key terms used above

When designing research it’s important to be really clear about what you mean by each term. In the above example I see at least 5 terms that need precise definition: teddy bear, fur loss, childhood, ratio of cotton to rayon and rate of childhood use. Stating your key terms clearly induces you to think concretely about what you are proposing to investigate; ambiguity is removed for both you and for those that will scrutinize your research proposals, namely research committees, granting agencies and ethics boards.  Having clear definitions of key terms also makes it easier to devise variables and values for statistical analysis.

Hierarchy of Concepts

When you are working on the question formation stage of your research proposal (as per the criteria of Form 1) be aware that you want to build what Punch (2006) calls a “hierarchy of concepts”.  Research Area is conceptually, the most abstract, while Specific Research Question (or questions) are the least abstract.  There must be a descending order of abstraction from area to topic to general question and then to specific questions. Data collection questions, if you develop any of these, in fact, would be the least abstract or ‘lowest down’ in the hierarchy of concepts.  But even these least abstract type of questions must be conceptually linked to one of your Specific Research Questions and ultimately to your Research Area.  Making sure your concepts are arranged hierarchically and in decreasing order of abstraction is a useful organizing tool and will help insure your proposal is consistent and focused.


Having a good set of research questions that are integrated well with a research purpose can sometimes be nerve-wracking. So keep in mind that the time you spend at the stage, will pay dividends throughout the research process.  This will be immediately apparent in the next phase of developing your research proposals: the literature review. Keep in mind that forming research questions involves, in practice, a ‘toing and froing’ between the ‘question formation stage’ and the ‘literature review stage’. So you can expect your questions, and perhaps the entire content of Form 1, to shift as one goes deeper into the literature.

Composing “the research question” where the definition of key terms, research areas and topic and basic method are all rolled into one, is possible. Such is the case with the PICOT approach to research question formation (Population/People or Patients, Intervention, Control or Comparison, Outcome and Timeframe) (see Vaillancourt, 2011, p. 39; and Thabane, 2009). However, I think my approach is better because, for example, the conceptual hierarchy mandate helps the researcher organize and plan and can often facilitate literature reviewing.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

Punch, Keith (2006). ‘Developing Effective Research Proposals’, Second Edition, Sage. (I would like to acknowledge Punch’s work for helping me develop the forms.)

Thabane L. Thomas, et al. ‘Posing the research question: not so simple’. Can J. Anaesthesia. 2009; 56(1):71-9.

Vaillancourt, Christian (2011). ‘Conceiving and formulating the research question’, in The Research Guide: A primer for residents, other health care trainees, and practitioners, Bart J. Harvey et al. Eds., Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.