Research is about finding answers to questions (sometimes expressed in terms of hypotheses). It is also important to frame your research question or hypothesis as this will narrow down a broad topic of interest to a specific area of study.
To frame your research question / hypothesis, you should take the following steps:
Start with a broad topic that you are interested in. Use mind mapping techniques to group ideas together, organise and connect them.
Look up current debates and topical issues to identify gaps in knowledge.
Try coming up with potential research questions by narrowing down your topic. You can develop these questions by either challenging the view of others or attempting to fill the gaps in knowledge you have identified so far.
Check the strength of your potential research questions / hypotheses (see below for more information).
Hulley et al (2007) suggests using the FINER criteria to determine the strength of your research question / hypothesis.
Ask yourself if your questions are:
F – Feasible
Can the study be completed with the timeframe given and the resources which are available?
I – Interesting
Is your research question / hypothesis of interest to the wider academic community?
N – Novel
Does your research question / hypothesis promise to offer new insight into your field of study?
E – Ethical
If you are gathering original data, would your research question / hypothesis be approved by panels and review boards?
R – Relevant
Is your research question / hypothesis relevant to public interest or the debates currently circulating within the wider academic community?
Normally, in a dissertation you will have a research question OR a hypothesis.
When to use research questions or hypotheses?
The work is exploratory
(e.g. what increases students’ creativity?)
The work is explanatory (cause and effect relationships)
(e.g. playing table tennis increases students’ creativity)
Impossible or inappropriate to
The hypothesis can be tested empirically
If you use mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative) research you may need to have both hypothesis (for the quantitative part) and research question (for the qualitative part). See also the Methodology Guide.
We advise you to formulate a research question if
Your project is exploratory, meaning you are not looking for a specific result.
Your project method is qualitative, seeking to understand concepts, thoughts and experiences through non-numerical data.
Characteristics of good research questions:
Feasible: you must be able to answer it within your means (skills, time, financial means). It is better to have a thoroughly researched answer to a small question than to fail to find the answer to one which is too big or diffuse!
Focused: deal with a single problem or issue that you can answer thoroughly. We recommend the use of one, maximum two, research question(s).
Complex: find a topic that can be addresses in the space of your dissertation. No short yes or no answers!
Relevant: find something relating to your course, and ideally helpful to society as well.
Original: try to fill a gap in the knowledge.
A hypothesis is a reasoned, provisional statement capable of being empirically tested. As a statement, it predicts what you think the outcome of the study will be. A hypothesis is generally associated with quantitative studies (studies based on numerical data).
Characteristics of good hypotheses:
Testable: the hypothesis has to be capable of being proved or disproved by testing.
Informed: make sure you take into consideration existing knowledge and experiments.
Simple: try to make your hypothesis as simple as possible. Usually, it will be a hypothesis that shows the relationship between two variables where one is called the independent variable or ‘cause’ and the other is the dependent variable or ‘effect’.
This video helps you to formulate the research question(s), hypothesis(es), aims and objectives of your dissertation. It defines these terms and provides tips for writing these elements well.
Once you have decided on your research question or hypothesis, you can start to think about your research methods. The method is the way you will provide an answer to your research question, or test your hypothesis.
Are you going to use literature (secondary sources) only? Or are you going to use primary sources too? If so, existing data (secondary data, e.g. statistics, company data) or data you’ll find yourself (primary data, e.g. interviews, questionnaires, experiments)? Is the research going to be qualitative or quantitative? Will you need ethical clearance?
To get started on devising your methodology you might want to have a look at the research methods others have used. When considering which methods to use, ask yourself:
Is this a good method?
What makes it a good method?
Why did the researchers choose this method?
Are there any limitations?
Were any factors not considered?
Were there any biases?
Why would this work/not work for my research?
Can I improve this method in any way?
For more guidance on approach, check out the Methodology Guide.
Creswell, J. and Creswell, J. (2018). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. London: Sage
Hulley, S., Cummings, S. and Browner, W. (2007). Designing Clinical Research. England: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Locke, L., Spirduso, W. and Silverman, S. (2014). Proposals that work. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Swanborn, P. (2010). Case Study Research: What, Why and How. London: Sage.