How you ask matters: The wording of your research question affects your analysis


Posted April 10, 2017

Your research questions are the heart of your dissertation—they come from your problem and purpose statement and guide your data collection and analysis. How you word your research questions influences the depth and breadth of inferences you can make in your results and discussion. There are three types of quantitative research question you can ask: descriptive, comparative, and relational.

First, there are descriptive research questions. These types of questions seek to simply describe a situation, and do not include any hypothesis testing. For example, imagine that you are a researcher interested in the leadership style of ice cream shop employers and the job satisfaction of their employees. Descriptive research questions for this topic could be:

• What is the leadership style of ice cream shop employers?
• What is the job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees?

For these questions, means and standard deviations or frequencies and percentages would be calculated, depending on the level of measurement of the variables.

Or, you could create a comparative research question. These are used to compare variables or groups in order to assess differences between them. A question of this type could be:

• Is there a significant difference in the job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees who have ice cream shop employers with different leadership styles?

Comparative analyses that seek to assess differences include the t-test and the analysis of variance (ANOVA) family of tests.

Finally, there are relational research questions. These types of questions seek to assess the relationship between two or more variables or groups. This type of question could be phrased as:

• Does the leadership style of ice cream shop employers predict job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees?
• Is there a correlation between leadership style of ice cream shop employers and job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees?

Notice that here, there are two different relational questions. One uses the word predict and the other uses the word correlation. There are several “buzzwords” in quantitative research that indicate very specific analyses, including predict, correlation, difference, relationship, positive, negative, and more. The use of the word predict indicates the use of a regression. The use of the word correlate indicates the use of a simple correlation analysis. Note that this is different from describing your research design as correlational—which simply implies that you are assessing a relationship, which could be through a correlation analysis or a regression analysis.

If you use the word difference, you have created a comparative research question. If you use the word relationship, you have created a relational research question that is more general than using the words predict or correlate, leaving you with more options when it comes down to cementing your data analysis. The terms positive and negative are augmenting words that can be added to your research question if you want be specific with the hypothesized direction of the relationship between variables. These should only be used when there is significant evidence in the literature to support your research question and associated hypotheses, as using these terms limits your ability to reject your null hypothesis. For example, if you asked:

• Is there a significant positive correlation between age and the job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees?
Your null hypothesis would be:
• There is no significant positive correlation between age and the job satisfaction of ice cream shop employees.

Suppose you ran your results and actually found that there is a significant negative correlation between the two variables. You found a significant result, but you still could not reject your null hypothesis, as you did not find a positive correlation. Use these only when you want to make a specific directional hypothesis and there is substantial evidence in the literature to guide your hypothesis

How you word your research question affects whether you can make any sort of inference—for example, if you only ask a descriptive author rachaelquestion, you cannot assess whether your independent variable predicts your dependent variable, or if there are any differences between groups. Your entire dissertation should be carefully planned and orchestrated, even down to the specific wording of your research questions!


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